Yesterday, I received a phone call from a colleague of mine who works as a student-veterans' consultant for the University of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College. He passed along a memo from the Buffalo VA Regional Office to campus education claims representatives across the Northeast asking them to square away their paperwork.
The memo discussed how claims-processors were not filing paperwork for the correct chapters of the G.I. Bill, which has contributed to incorrect payments and increased delays in benefits-delivery across the region.
At colleges around the region, payments have started to trickle in for tuition. However, living stipends remain MIA.
Matt Susko, an Army veteran of Iraq, said that his school, Cape Cod Community College, received his tuition, but he has not seen any kind of compensation from VA beyond his $3,000 emergency living stipend check.
On Monday, Bob Brewin from NextGov reported that DC-area student-veterans were still missing their G.I. Bill living stipends and that the VA Monday Morning Workload Report still showed only a slight reduction in claims awaiting adjudication.
Last month, VA retained the services of ACS Federal to assist with claims-processing--a move AMVETS hesitantly supported. However, as Brewin reported, the move hasn't changed much to this point in terms of the backlog.
I hate to keep harping on the G.I. Bill delays, but my own experiences leave me pessimistic about Chapter 33 implementation and the effects on today's student-veterans' community.
When I returned from Iraq, I sought to take advantage of my new Reserve Education Assistance Program (REAP, Chapter 1607) benefits. After speaking with leaders in my unit and reading up on the new benefit, I went to apply with my VA representative at URI. She had never heard of Chapter 1607 or REAP and had me write in my query on the old Montgomery G.I. Bill paperwork.
Needless to say, nothing happened immediately. I had to re-file my paperwork and enroll under my old benefit, which was fine at the time. It took about six months to sort out Chapter 1607 and I was entitled to some significant back pay once it was sorted out.
At the time, REAP was a substantial increase in benefits, but in no way did it cover the complete cost of my education. I held down several part-time jobs and took out student loans to make up the difference.
Fast forward to 2009 with the complicated Chapter 33 benefits and more than 80,000 student-veterans immediately seeking to take advantage. Compound this with many students who were counting on Chapter 33 to cover all the expenses associated with a college education, including rent, utilities, and groceries, and campus employees who file these complex claims as a collateral responsibility and you're left with finger-pointing about who dropped the ball.
Though VA has the money to pay each of veteran filing for Chapter 33, time is critical. Though I had the luxury of waiting for my paperwork to be sorted out, many of the veterans enrolled in under the new benefit are literally down to their last dime. While schools may understand that the "check is in the mail," this story is a little more difficult to explain to the cashier at Stop & Shop or the clerk at the Sunoco station.
If there's anything veterans know how to do, it's hurry up and wait. But there's even a breaking point for us. Rumors have already started to circulate that veterans plan to drop out of school in the spring just to avoid what they see as an inevitable hassle.
AMVETS leaders are doing all they can to reassure veterans that the money is on its way and that these initial hiccups should not repeat themselves over the next two semesters, but patience is understandably wearing thin.
Personally, I hope that ACS and VA can sort out this backlog quickly and deliver benefits in time for winter break, but a great deal of this still rests on the claims-processors working efficiently on the college campuses.
At some point, the blame has to shift off of VA. From what I've seen, they have been responsive to the concerns of the veterans' community, but the same cannot be said for the schools.
AMVETS leaders have been screaming for colleges and universities to prepare for the influx of veterans this fall. This latest memo from Buffalo indicates to me that certain schools did not take these warnings seriously.
So, I guess we can only reiterate what Buffalo is telling the claims-processors on college campuses: Pay attention to the details. You're the most critical step in ensuring our veterans receive the benefits they have earned.
If you have a Post-9/11 G.I. Bill issue that you would care to share, please feel free to leave your comments below.