Software glitch delays GI payments

By Tom Philpott: PNT columnist

Amanda Collier started college last August armed with a certificate of eligibility to use Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits that her dad, a Coast Guardsman of 22 years, had earned and transferred to her.

Next week Amanda will take final exams for her first semester at the University of Central Oklahoma.

But neither she nor the university has received any GI Bill money yet to cover her tuition, housing or other costs.

The missing payments “made the semester a lot more complicated than it should have been,” Amanda said.

She is among an unknown number of Post-9/11 GI Bill users still victimized by computer software at the Department of Veterans Affairs that left VA staff unable to process two categories of claims. These cases simply were set aside to await a software upgrade.

What might be called a “black hole” for some GI Bill claims hit students whose Post-9/11 GI Bill award levels needed adjusting after the semester began, usually because a student added or drop a course, as Amanda had done. But it also impacted students who had changed campuses or schools, and therefore created “overlapping terms,” which the old GI Bill software couldn’t handle, said Keith Wilson, director of VA’s education service.

Amanda’s situation was made more stressful because, as a dependent using transferred benefits she was ineligible for the $3,000 lump-sum emergency payment VA officials began to make in early October to relieve financial stress on thousands of students whose new GI Bill payments were delayed by various start-up challenges.

“We don’t have the mechanism for them to apply for that,” Wilson said. The lump sum payments, he explained, had to be made available quickly. VA computers only held data on veterans, to validate eligibility and track payments, and not on dependents.

“Once you start needing to rely on information removed from veterans’ status, it becomes infinitely more complex,” said Wilson.

Susan Collier, Amanda’s mother, said she tried to learn everything she could over the past year about the new GI Bill and transferability so that financing her daughter’s education this fall would be smooth. Her husband applied for benefits as soon as he could and transferred 100 percent of his GI Bill to his daughter. By Aug. 28, she had GI bill Certificate of Eligibility.

But when Amanda dropped a course in September, cutting total credit hours from 15 to 12, VA couldn’t process an adjusted benefit award. So Amanda couldn’t be paid her book stipend or her housing allowance to cover dorm costs. Her university couldn’t be paid promised tuition fees.

“The Housing Office at the school threatened us with letters each month that they were going to turn us over to a collection agency,” Susan said. “We called the Housing Office each month and they finally agreed to wait for the money … until the next month came and still no money.”

To make matters worse, Amanda wants to transfer next semester to a smaller school. But the university, Susan said, “will not give her a final transcript because she still owes them money. … All of this means we are on the hook for over $15,000 since the VA isn’t paying.”

Wilson said the software fix that impacted students like Amanda was installed in early November. VA officials have told Susan the back payments should arrive by mid-December.