Universities and colleges are still waiting for tuition payments for thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended school last fall under the new GI Bill, leaving the veterans panicked that they'll be unable to return to class in January.
Veterans Affairs Department officials promise to get them back into the classroom. The VA says the number of veterans with claims unprocessed is now fewer than 5,000 — down from tens of thousands — and the goal is to have them all processed by the end of the year.
"We continue to work on a daily basis with schools to make sure that no student is denied attending class as a result of delayed tuition payments," Katie Roberts, a VA spokeswoman, said Tuesday. "It's a top priority for VA to make sure that students can focus on their studies rather than their bank accounts."
But after being besieged by delays and financial hardship last semester that left them struggling to make rent payments and pay for textbooks, many veterans are frantically contacting veterans service organizations such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for guidance.
Clay Hunt, a former Marine corporal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, attends Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said he and his wife have racked up about $4,000 in credit card debt because his university won't release student loans he needs for living expenses until tuition is fully paid. Hunt, 27, said under the GI Bill the school is still owed about $6,000 and he personally is owed about $1,700 for housing and books.
"I am disappointed about it," Hunt said. "I'm very disappointed about the way it was implemented. I feel like the VA had ample time to figure out how they were going to disperse these payments and make sure this transition to the new GI Bill went smoothly, and they definitely failed to do that."
'It is going to be ugly'
Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for New York-based IAVA, which lobbied for the education benefit and is pushing Congress to simplify the formula for determining what amount veterans receive, said he talked to one veteran who graduated but hasn't been allowed to get his diploma because the tuition hasn't been paid. Others weren't allowed to enroll for the spring semester, he said.
"The next semester is going to be a mess. Straight up," Tarantino said. "I don't know if it's going to be as bad as this semester was, but it is going to be ugly."
Beyond the tuition, many of the veterans have had to wait for funds paid directly to them for housing and books. To help cushion the blow, the VA issued $3,000 emergency checks to more than 68,000 veterans, but for some the money's run out.
President Barack Obama rolled out the post-9/11 GI Bill on Aug. 3, and praised it as an opportunity to transform the lives of a new generation of veterans. It's designed to be the most comprehensive education benefit for veterans since World War II.
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. Active duty service members can transfer the benefit to their spouse or kids.
It's estimated that $78 billion will be paid and so far the VA has paid about $1 billion to almost 150,000 veterans.
But the complexity of the formula used to establish what the veteran receives, and a clunky information technology system used by the VA to process claims, means that each claim takes about an hour and a half to process and it has to be manually processed in four different IT systems.
Keith M. Wilson, director of the VA's Office of Education Service, told a congressional panel on Dec. 3 that the agency is using "brute force" to get claims processed. The number of staff has increased from 800 to 1,200 and the VA implemented a mandatory overtime policy. The VA expects to have all claims received by Jan. 15 paid by Feb. 1.
Wilson said the VA is open to the possibility of doing another round of emergency payments. It is set to have an automated system fully running in December of next year.
The financial uncertainty of when money will arrive is too much for some veterans. Margaret Baechtold, director of veterans support services at Indiana University, testified at the same hearing that one veteran who attended classes last fall at the university's Indianapolis campus is instead going to be a roofer in January.
"Some have indicated they can't bear the stress of the financial situation that they are in because they don't know what's going to happen," Baechtold said.
On the last day of classes in December at IU, she said 16 veterans certified as eligible for the new GI Bill before November hadn't received promised funds, Baechtold said later in a telephone interview. She said the school issued more than $27,000 in emergency loans to help out the veterans in need.
"It is a nightmare and I feel sorry for the folks who are trying to process this," Baechtold said.
Last month, Reps. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., chairwoman of the House Veterans subcommittee on economic opportunity, and John Boozman, R-Ark., the subcommittee's ranking member, wrote Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki suggesting ways the agency could better communicate with veterans so there's less confusion.
Some say the schools also need to do a better job of getting paperwork to the VA.
Veterans service organizations have sought to have the benefit expanded in areas such as vocational training and for those participating in distance learning programs.
Rep. Steve Buyer, R-Ind., the ranking member of the House Veterans' Committee, said the priority should be getting claims processed in a timely manner.
"What good are benefits if we can't deliver them in a timely manner?" Buyer said at the hearing.