The new Post-9/11 GI Bill, which on average will double the value of education benefits for eligible veterans, will be launched on schedule next August and begin making payments to students and colleges next fall. That’s just as Congress intended, says a senior Department of Veterans Affairs official.
Keith M. Wilson, director of education service for the Veterans Benefits Administration, told Military Update that concerns expressed by some lawmakers and veterans’ service organizations that the new GI Bill might not start Aug. 1, 2009, as the law requires, are unfounded.
However, Wilson said, payments will have to be processed manually, as occurs now with Montgomery GI Bill and other education benefit claims, because an automated processing system won’t be ready for two more years.
Only last month VA officials had assured Congress they continued to pursue a strategy to have Post-9/11 GI Bill claims handled by a private contractor who would deploy a modern claim processing system based on industry-standard technologies and “minimal human intervention.”
On Oct. 10, the VA announced it will have to “rely upon its own workforce to set up the information technology programs needed to implement the educational benefits of the new Post-9/11 GI Bill.”
The VA press release explained it had not received enough proposals “from qualified private-sector contractors to create an information technology program that implements the new benefit.” That left some lawmakers concerned that the department now was in a race to field its own automated processing system or the Post-9/11 benefit might not begin on schedule.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, reiterated that concern Wednesday, saying he was frustrated and “a little bit worried we’re not going to get this done on time. They spent months telling us the only way to go was to go outside with this contractual thing in the private sector; VA could never do it. Now they say they are going to do what they told us they couldn’t do. So I don’t know what’s going on there, whether there’s any leadership, whether there’s any accountability.”
Filner said the new GI Bill “means so much to so many veterans we’ve just got to get it done, and (the VA) should devote whatever resources it takes to get it done.”
Before abruptly ending its quest for an outside contractor, Filner said, the VA had whittled its choices down to four companies but was feeling a lot of heat from congressional overseers like him. Veterans’ service organizations too had criticized use of a private firm to process GI Bill claims despite VA assurances that the department would not contract out “responsibility for actually administering” the new benefit.
Director Wilson said the criticism played no part in the VA decision to shift to its back-up plan for launching the Post-9/11 GI Bill program: using existing processes and just hiring more staff to screen and approve benefits manually. Applications will be processed this way until the VA has an automated system in place, which will take another 24 months, Wilson said. But the Post-9/11 GI Bill, he emphasized, will start on schedule next August.
Tom Philpott can be contacted at Military Update, P.O. Box 231111, Centreville, Va. 20120-1111, or by e-mail at: email@example.com