Congress passes bills to help address veterans' GI Bill benefit woes

"There’s simply no excuse for failing to fully deliver the housing benefits that student veterans are owed," said Sen. John Boozman.

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By Phil McCausland

Congress passed two bills in the final days of the 2018 legislative session that help address the ongoing issues faced by student veterans after the Department of Veterans Affairs struggled to pay GI Bill benefits. The two bills now await President Donald Trump's signature to become law.

The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act, which passed Thursday, aims to ensure veterans received all the money they were owed. The Veterans Benefits and Transition Act of 2018, passed late Wednesday, would further protect recipients from suffering consequences because of VA's delay.

Thousands of student veterans received late or incorrect housing payments this past semester because of computer problems at VA, forcing them into difficult financial circumstances. Many also did not receive their tuition payments, which put them at odds with their schools.

NBC News' reporting found that students were taking on massive amounts of credit card debt and getting loans to hold their families over when they did not receive the benefits they had expected.

The computer problems surfaced when VA tried to implement the Forever GI Bill, which Trump signed into law in mid-2017. The bill required VA to calculate housing in a new way, but the change caused computer systems to freeze and delayed benefit payments.

After a series of confusing statements from VA, lawmakers raced to try to fix the issue in the final days of the 2018 legislative session.

The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act, authored by Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and John Boozman, R-Ark., sought to hold VA accountable for making incorrect payments to student veterans. The legislation would require VA to rectify any errors and ensure that GI Bill recipients are paid in full.

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The law creates a team dedicated to auditing the payments to find any mistakes and report its findings to Congress. The agency would also be required to report to Congress by July 2020 the number of student veterans affected and the degree to which they were hurt.

"There’s simply no excuse for failing to fully deliver the housing benefits that student veterans are owed, which is why it was necessary to directly confront the VA’s errors and use our oversight to make certain they do not go uncorrected. I’m pleased this bill moved through Congress swiftly and look forward to the president signing it into law,” Boozman said.

VA initially refused to tell Congress in mid-November when it would fix the problem, but two weeks later said it could make correct payments by Dec. 1, 2019. In the following 24 hours, VA officials shared a series of changing and inconsistent statements on whether it would retroactively repay underpaid veterans that befuddled and infuriated lawmakers. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie ultimately released a statement promising that all veterans would be paid in accordance with the law.

It appears that this legislation would force the agency to make sure that veterans are paid all the money they are owed.

“For many student veterans, every dime counts. That’s why the VA needs to get this right and pay student veterans the full amount of money they were promised,” Schatz said in a statement.

A second bill sent for Trump to sign protects students from their schools when the VA fails to pay the tuition on time. The law's passage would mean students aren't held accountable for the late payments, preventing schools from charging late fees or dropping veterans from classes.

The law also expands burial benefits for families of service members and veterans, requires VA to standardize debt notices to veterans, expands protections and benefits to military spouses and grows other benefit and assistance programs.

"This is a good little package of small bills," Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, told NBC News. "These are little things that both Democrats and Republicans came up with."

But not all veteran groups were ultimately happy with Congress's final legislative moments.

Six months ago, Roe's committee passed the Blue Water Navy, Vietnam Veterans Act of 2018, moving it to be passed by the House 382-0. The law would expand benefits to veterans who may have been exposed to Agent Orange off the coast of Vietnam.

Though Roe and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the committee's next chairman, pushed to pass the law, Sens. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., blocked it in the Senate, citing budgetary concerns and taking issue with the claims' legitimacy.

But Roe said he would continue to push for the bill until the last moment.

“I want to get it done this year,” Roe said. “But we’re down two and we got nothing more than two seconds on the clock.”