VBA doesn’t know how many students were affected by Forever GI Bill failure last year

Photo credit Photo by Master Sgt. William Wiseman/185th Air Refueling Wing, Iowa Air National Guard

The Veterans Benefits Administration doesn’t know how many Forever GI Bill students went without payments last year after a massive IT failure.

And VBA won’t know how many students still are owed money until December 1 at the earliest, VBA leadership said at a Congressional joint subcommittee hearing on the Hill Thursday.

Forever GI Bill students faced long delays and even evictions because the VBA failed to make payments on time last year. Now Congress is tracking the recovery process closely, and members grilled VBA leadership at the hearing on how and when things will be fixed.

The VBA Office of the Inspector General’s findings on last year’s failures “were stark,” chairman Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif., said at the hearing.

The VBA lacked an accountable leader who could oversee the project “resulting in unclear communication of implementation progress and inadequately defined roles and responsibilities” of VA workers and contractors involved. Now, Levin said he hopes VBA has “learned from the failures of the past.”

Chairwoman Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., said she was “very concerned about the VA’s ability to successfully move from legacy to modern systems. This is not just because the VA faces challenges like every federal agency in keeping up with technology … it’s because the VA seems to manage to get in its own way time and time again."

“Leadership vacuums, mismanagement and an overreliance on contractors makes it hard to succeed. You had to fail to get here … A lack of accountability and governance -- it’s a whole of VA issue. Building a house on a shaky foundation has real risk.”

Lee said the Forever GI Bill issues last year were “yet another at the VA … IT failures don’t happen in a vacuum. IT failures mean that veterans don’t get their benefits, they get evicted from their home and they have their education disrupted. These failures have real consequences for our veterans.”

Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., had harsh words for those who would downplay last year’s IT collapse.

“For many student veterans, these payments are the only source of income they have while they are in school. To those who have tried to downplay the financial impact and stress these delays have placed on these veterans, I ask you to go weeks, if not months, without a paycheck and see how that impacts you,” Bilirakis said.

“While I want to believe that the IT modification will be ready … I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t just a bit skeptical of this promise by the VA. After all, last year these same types of assurances had been given to this subcommittee time and time again.”

Bilirakis wanted to know when students owed money would finally see payment.“Students should expect to be paid as soon as possible, not just when it is convenient for VA and the schools,” he said. “Many of the delays last fall can be linked to an ancient IT system. This is certainly not the first time the VA has failed to provide GI bill payments on time. Our student veterans deserve better.”

VBA leadership said they wouldn’t know which students were still owed money until after a new system goes live in December -- if it does go live by that deadline.

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., said he was concerned about the VA’s handling of the Forever GI Bill not because IT issues like last year’s are unusual “but because they’re ordinary” for the agency. Banks said the “disaster” was the GI Bill last year “but it could have been any VA program.”

The VBA’s Office of the Inspector General reported that it found the failures last year to be due to the “same two underlying issues” that have negatively impacted the VA’s rollout of other new policies -- “lack of IT functionality and inadequate leadership.”

VBA leaders said they’ve addressed most of those issues, such as appointing a new undersecretary for benefits and a new team and office to oversee its programs. VBA is also working on several initial builds of the new IT system between now and the December deadline and will know in October if that deadline can be met.

If and when that new system goes live on December 1, the VBA “will have a better estimate of who is owed payments” and how to go about issuing those, leaders said, adding that VBA is “10/10” certain that the issues will be “fixed by the end of the year.”

But that doesn’t mean students owed money will see those payments December 1. It just means that payments will be correct for spring 2020 semester and the VBA will begin to look at who is still owed money.

If the VBA does not meet its December deadline, leaders said there would “be no surprises” and students would “continue to be paid under rates we’re using now.”

“So you don’t actually know the scope of the problem yet,” Rep. Elaine Luria, D-Va., asked. “You really don't have any idea of how many students this has affected, but you're fully confident that you're going to have a fix?”

VBA leadership said they had a “sense of the scope” of how many students were affected last year, “we just can’t give you an exact number.”

Levin said VBA had nearly a full year after the Forever GI Bill passed in 2017 to “provide updates, request clarifications, extensions” and implement the program. “Few of those things happened, however. Those that did were long after the VA repeatedly missed deadlines.”

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Follow Abbie Bennett,@AbbieRBennett.