Bill eases GI Bill shortfall for vets

As Congress moves closer to protecting veterans at private colleges in seven states from a sharp drop in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, the Department of Veterans Affairs has softened its warning that the relief move will cause significant payment delays for many thousands of GI Bill users this fall.

VA officials still see payment challenges ahead if the Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act becomes law this year.

A few months back, VA officials had opposed the bill. Keith M. Wilson, director of the VA’s education service, testified that providing relief from a new Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits’ cap to 30,000 students already enrolled in private colleges would require that the VA process those payments manually rather than through a redesigned computer software program.

The administrative burden of doing this would “lead to a significant increase in the average processing time for all claims during the critical fall enrollment period,” Wilson told a House subcommittee.

But VA officials now estimate that fewer than 6,000 of the 30,000 students attending private colleges in Arizona, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas will need relief from the benefit cap to avoid a sharp drop in GI Bill payments. This 80 percent drop in the estimated number of student vets who would benefit from the relief bill, and therefore would need to have their GI Bill payments manually processed, lessens the threat of widespread delays this fall, agreed Joshua P. Taylor, the VA’s press secretary. But passage of the relief bill still will pose challenges.

“VA has been working with the house and senate for some time to solve issues created for this group of students at higher-tuition schools in certain states,” Taylor said. “It is important that we make sure any change in law that would provide (cap) relief doesn’t have the effect of disrupting administration of the program for the larger group of GI Bill beneficiaries.”

VA officials know what’s in the legislation, Taylor added. But “we cannot implement changes in the system based on potential changes in the law. At this point, the processing of fall enrollments has already begun, which complicates the situation. We would have to process all those claims manually now and until the (relief) legislation expires.”

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced the Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act to address a problem created by the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act enacted last January. That bill improved the new GI Bill in several ways, all to take effect in fall 011. This includes allowing benefits to be used for non-degree education and vocational training, and simplifying a complex payment-setting scheme.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill will continue to cover full tuition and fees at any public college or university. But the wide variance in entitlement for students attending private colleges will end. Benefit ceilings set in every state, based on tuition and fees at the most expensive state college or university, will be replaced by a single $17,500 annual cap. Starting next year, that cap will be adjusted annually by the percentage rise in education costs nationwide.

But the new cap left private college students in seven states facing hefty unplanned out-of-pocket costs. Individual schools can address this by participating more deeply in the Post-9/11 GI Bill’s Yellow Ribbon feature. That feature requires VA to match in higher payments any portion of uncovered tuition that a private college or university agrees to waive.

At schools not planning to strengthen Yellow Ribbon participation, the Restoring GI Bill Fairness Act would prevent GI Bill payments from falling for veterans already enrolled until they get their degree or exhaust their benefit.