Agency Tries to Explain How It's Handling Backlog of Claims Under New GI Bill

October 15, 2009

More than one-third of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who are enrolled in college this semester still have not received their education benefits under the Post-9/11 GI Bill, an official of the Veterans Affairs Department said at a Congressional hearing on Thursday in testimony that expanded on the causes of the delay.

Since May, about 275,000 veterans have applied for, and 213,000 have received, certificates of eligibility for the program. But they have 15 years from the end of their active service to use the benefits, and only about 82,500 of those who applied are enrolled in courses this fall, Keith M. Wilson, the department's director of education services, told members of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Veterans Affairs. Of those enrolled, 52,500 have received payments so far, he said.

Emergency advance checks of $3,000 have provided a stopgap measure for the tens of thousands of veterans still waiting, and Mr. Wilson said the department does not believe that any veterans have been forced to drop out of college because of the delays.

The delays stem from several sources. Veterans Affairs officials had expected that most veterans who applied would be those planning to enroll in classes this fall. Instead, widespread publicity for the new GI Bill led to an influx of applications from veterans who did not intend to use the benefits this year. In the summer and early fall, the department was also waiting for states to set tuition for public universities, and for colleges to verify that veterans were enrolled, which some institutions do not do until after classes begin.

But the biggest snarl has arguably been technology: The department must deal with each claim individually, and the process involves four separate computer systems that do not work together. The result is that each claim takes about 90 minutes to process, Mr. Wilson said. The department has hired 720 new employees to administer the program and is requiring workers to work overtime three days in each two-week pay period.

Those explanations were not enough for Rep. Harry E. Mitchell, Democrat of Arizona, who suggested that Veterans Affairs officials go without bonuses this year.

"Regardless of if you work on Wall Street or Main Street or in the Department of Veterans Affairs, bonuses should follow performance," Mr. Mitchell said.

Mr. Wilson said his department is working hard to correct the problem. A veteran himself, he takes the delays personally, he said. "I know what it's like to stand in line for food stamps after defending this nation for eight years," he said.

The goal, he said, is to clear the current backlog of claims before spring enrollment begins. Then the process will start all over again.