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Many problems came up this past year when the Department of Veterans Affairs tried to implement the Forever GI Bill. These issues caused thousands of delayed or incorrect payments to student veterans who depended on the education benefit for housing, tuition, books, food and more.
President Donald Trump signed the Forever GI Bill into law in the summer of 2017. The generous legislation expanded benefits available to veterans and changed how housing allowances were calculated — but that change caused computer issues at VA, triggering a massive backlog of education claims.
Missed payments left some students in dire financial circumstances, forcing them to max out credit cards, take out loans and borrow money from friends and family to make ends meet.
NBC News began to document some of these challenges in October and reported on the fallout on Capitol Hill and in Washington, D.C., that resulted through the end of the year.
In October, a student veteran reached out to NBC News via its tip line to complain that he had not received money owed to him through the Forever GI Bill. On October 7, NBC News reported that many GI Bill recipients faced terrible financial hardships because the VA had not paid them. The VA also appeared to have failed to communicate the computer challenges it faced in cutting checks for veterans, and long wait times at call centers left many veterans frustrated and with no recourse.
Officials in New York City announced at the end of October that 12,000 veterans in the city were impacted and at risk of eviction. Mayor Bill de Blasio said that the city would offer financial assistance to those affected.
NBC News then reported on Veterans Day that computer issues continued to put student veterans at risk of eviction and detailed some of the problems at play, including system crashes and the persistent appearance of the "blue screen of death" at VA's regional processing centers.
Congress had a planned hearing to discuss these issues a little less than a week later. But just before the hearing, it was discovered that a senior VA official overseeing some of these issues and who was scheduled to testify, Gen. Robert Worley, had been reassigned to be the director of a regional office in Houston.
The next day, while testifying before Congress, VA officials expanded on the ongoing issues, but they refused to commit to a timeline to fix the issue. They said, however, that VA employees and contractors were working overtime and weekends to straighten out the problem.
NBC News then reported that less than two days after the hearing VA had to cancel the weekend overtime work because an internal system update had unexpectedly disrupted their ability to continue processing claims.
Finally, on Nov. 28, VA announced that it would be more than a year until they were able to fully implement the Forever GI Bill, delaying the roll out date to make correct housing payments under the law until December 1, 2019.
But in a private briefing call, hours after that same announcement, VA officials told congressional staffers that they did not intend to audit the payments they made to ensure that all student veterans were fully paid.
Paul Lawrence, who oversees the Veterans Benefits Administration, called NBC News' reporting on the subject "misleading" before a congressional hearing the next day, adding that "nothing could be further from the truth." Later in the questioning, however, he admitted that VA believed that "going back would be energy that is better spent processing claims going forward."
Again hours later, VA came forward reversing course on that idea. Lawrence's boss, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie announced that "each and every beneficiary will receive retroactively the exact benefits to which they are entitled under [the Forever GI Bill]."
As the answers from VA appeared fairly murky and prone to change to many members of Congress, lawmakers demanded an investigation into the federal agency to gain a grasp of the size of the problem and ensure all student veterans receive the money they are entitled to. Questions were also raised over who should be held accountable for these ongoing problems.
That also pushed legislators to act in the final moments of the session, as they passed two bills that helped ensure veterans received all the money owed to them and protect them in future from suffering financial and administrative consequences because of VA's delays.
As the year ends and VA insists that it is unlikely similar issues will occur again, many advocates, veterans and lawmakers are maintaining a wait-and-see approach with concerns that GI Bill recipients could face similar hardships next semester.