The Veterans Affairs Department said Friday it would begin issuing emergency checks of up to $3,000 to Iraq and Afghanistan veterans whose payments under the new GI Bill have been delayed.
Tens of thousand of veterans from the recent wars have been waiting for payments under the newly enacted Post 9/11 GI Bill, which was the largest expansion of education benefits since World War II.
"It's clear to me that we have to do something, just to be on the safe side to alleviate any stress that students are facing," Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki said late Friday afternoon in an interview.
The checks will be distributed starting Oct. 2 at 57 regional VA offices across the country. To help with transportation issues, the VA said it expects to send representatives to schools with large veteran populations and work with veterans' service organizations to help students with transportation needs.
About 25,000 claims are pending that may result in the emergency payments to students, the VA said. The payments, which go toward housing and books, will be deducted from future education payments.
Shinseki said he hoped that the emergency payments would buy enough time for processing to get caught up. He said a good portion of the delays stem from the wait as universities send in final counts on veterans' class work after drop-and-add periods end.
"We're very much using this as sort of a lessons learned process for how we adjust next time," Shinseki said.
The agency has reassigned staff members and has claims processors working overtime. Shinseki said the process will be automated next year, which should make it more efficient.
Since May 1, the VA has said that nearly 290,000 claims for benefits have been filed under the new GI Bill, and about a quarter of those are pending. The average processing time is 34 days.
Under the bill, the maximum benefit allows eligible veterans to attend a public college or university for free for four years, provides a monthly housing stipend, and up to $1,000 a year for books.
"This is good news that kids are taking advantage of it. They're lining up to go to school. This is wonderful," Shinseki said.
On the Net: List of VA regional offices: http://www.vba.va.gov/VBA/benefits/offices.asp.