Hearing Transcript on Update of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
UPDATE OF THE POST-9/11 GI BILL
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS
U.S. HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
ONE HUNDRED ELEVENTH CONGRESS
SEPTEMBER 16, 2010
SERIAL No. 111-99
Printed for the use of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs
U.S. GOVERNMENT PRINTING OFFICE
For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office
CORRINE BROWN, Florida
STEVE BUYER, Indiana, Ranking
Malcom A. Shorter, Staff Director
SUBCOMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY
Pursuant to clause 2(e)(4) of Rule XI of the Rules of the House, public hearing records of the Committee on Veterans' Affairs are also published in electronic form. The printed hearing record remains the official version. Because electronic submissions are used to prepare both printed and electronic versions of the hearing record, the process of converting between various electronic formats may introduce unintentional errors or omissions. Such occurrences are inherent in the current publication process and should diminish as the process is further refined.
C O N T E N T S
September 16, 2010
Update of the Post-9/11 GI Bill
Chairwoman Stephanie Herseth Sandlin
Prepared statement of Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin
Hon. John Boozman, Ranking Republican Member
Prepared statement of Congressman Boozman
Hon. Walt Minnick
Prepared statement of Congressman Minnick
U.S. Department of Defense, Captain Mark Krause, USN (Ret.), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Program Manager, Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic, Department of the Navy
Prepared statement of Captain Krause
U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, Keith M. Wilson, Director, Education Service, Veterans Benefits Administration
Prepared statement of Mr. Wilson
American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Alan G. Merten, Ph.D., President, George Mason University
Prepared statement of Dr. Merten
American Legion, Robert Madden, Assistant Director, National Economic Commission
Prepared statement of Mr. Madden
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Tim Embree, Legislative Associate
Prepared statement Mr. Embree
National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators, Faith DesLauriers, Legislative Director
Prepared statement of DesLauriers
Veterans of Modern Warfare, Donald D. Overton, Jr., Executive Director
Prepared statement of Mr. Overton
Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, James D. Wear, Assistant Director, National Veterans Service
Prepared statement of Mr. Wear
SUBMISSIONS FOR THE RECORD
Disabled American Veterans, John L. Wilson, Assistant National Legislative Director, statement
Flink, Judith, Executive Director, University Student Financial Services, University of Illinois at Chicago, IL, statement
National Association of State Approving Agencies, William D. Stephens, President, statement
Student Veterans of America, statement
MATERIAL SUBMITTED FOR THE RECORD
Post-Hearing Follow-up Letter:
Robert Madden, Assistant Director, National Economic Commission, American Legion, to Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, letter dated October 19, 2010
Post-Hearing Questions and Responses for the Record:
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Faith DesLauriers, Legislative Director, National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators, letter dated September 20, 2010, and response letter dated October 13, 2010
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Alan Merten, President, George Mason University, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, letter dated September 20, 2010, and response from Edward Elmendorf, Senior Vice President, Government Relations and Policy Analysis, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, letter dated November 1, 2010
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Donald O. Overton, Jr., Executive Director, Veterans of Modern Warfare, letter September 20, 2010, and Mr. Overton's responses, dated November 1, 2010
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to James D. Wear, Assistant Director for Veterans Benefits Policy, National Veterans Service, Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States, letter dated September 20, 2010, and Mr. Wear's responses, dated November 1, 2010
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Robert Madden, Assistant Director, National Economic Commission, American Legion, letter dated September 20, 2010, and response letter dated November 1, 2010
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Mark Krause, Department of Veterans Affairs Program Manager, Space and Naval Warfare System Center Atlantic, Department of the Navy, U.S. Department of Defense, letter dated September 20, 2010, and DoD's responses
Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, Chairwoman, Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, Committee on Veterans' Affairs, to Keith Wilson, Director, Education Benefits, Veterans Benefits Administration, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, letter dated September 20, 2010, and VA responses
UPDATE OF THE POST-9/11 GI BILL
Thursday, September 16, 2010
U. S. House of Representatives,
Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity,
Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
The Subcommittee met, pursuant to notice, at 1:06 p.m., in Room 334, Cannon House Office Building, Hon. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin [Chairwoman of the Subcommittee] presiding.
Present: Representatives Minnick, Teague, and Boozman.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, the Committee on Veterans' Affairs Subcommittee on Economy Opportunity Oversight Hearing on the Post-9/11 GI Bill will come to order.
I ask unanimous consent that all Members have 5 legislative days to revise and extend their remarks and their written statements be made part of the record.
Hearing no objection so ordered.
I would also like to state the fact that the Disabled American Veterans, the University of Illinois, and the Student Veterans of America have asked to submit written testimony for the record. If there is no objection I ask for unanimous consent that their statements be entered for the record.
Hearing no objection so ordered.
During the 111th Congress, we successfully passed the Post-9/11 GI Bill to ensure that today's veterans are afforded equitable benefits similar to those afforded to veterans who served during World War II.
Furthermore, with the leadership of Representative Chet Edwards of Texas, we successfully passed the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship to provide education benefits to the dependents of the men and women who passed away due to injuries sustained in support of missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
While these legislative accomplishments are significant, we must continue to provide the needed oversight while addressing the shortfalls of existing education programs to assure that student veterans receive their benefits in a timely manner without delay or undue hardship.
To take another step toward that goal today, I hope this hearing can focus on several critical issues related to the Post-9/11 GI Bill program.
The ongoing effort to successfully implement the Long-Term Solution (LTS) to ensure that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) information technology (IT) systems are sufficiently robust to efficiently manage the program, the current status of the program as we begin the fall 2010 school semester, and a discussion of what changes need to be made to the program in order to better meet the needs of eligible veterans.
Some of you may be aware that yesterday the full Committee successfully passed H.R. 5360, the "Housing, Employment and Living Programs for Veterans Act of 2010," otherwise known as the HELP Veterans Act, which is fully paid for without placing a cost burden on the taxpayers.
This bill seeks to provide a number of important improvements to VA education benefits, including increasing the flight training allowance for chapter 30 recipients; reauthorizing and extending the recently expired veteran work-study program; and increasing the amount of reporting fees payable to educational institutions that enroll veterans receiving educational assistance.
I look forward to advancing this bipartisan bill as soon as time on the House floor is identified. I also look forward to working with my colleagues to consider other legislative proposals that seek to address the current needs of our Nation's veterans.
One such legislative proposal is H.R. 5933, the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010," which was introduced by Congressman Walt Minnick. I know several of our witnesses have referenced this legislation today and I look forward to learning more about how the proposals in that legislation, as well as those included in similar and related legislation, could potentially impact the Post-9/11 GI Bill program and its implementation.
I would now recognize the distinguished Ranking Member, Mr. Boozman, for his opening remarks.
[The prepared statement of Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin appears in the Appendix.]
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you, Madam Chair, I appreciate the excellent testimony submitted for this hearing, especially the administrative issues raised by the schools.
It is clear that while not perfect, the level of benefits paid to veterans and the schools on their behalf is excellent. Unfortunately, administration of those benefits has not met the same standard, because as VA and our staff noted in several meetings before passage as part of the defense supplemental, the program is significantly more complex than any of its predecessors.
Despite some early missteps, I am fully aware of the efforts that VA staff had put into developing the Long-Term Solution, and I thank and appreciate them for their work.
One of the basic difficulties is the wide variation in how public institutions in 50 States and the territories are funded and managed and how that impacts VA's implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
We are now entering the second year of the program and I am very concerned about issues surrounding the management of overpayments.
VA's basis position is that the veterans are responsible for returning any overpayment to VA and that schools should send overpayments to the veterans and the veterans send them to the VA. This seems to be an unnecessarily bureaucratic process that also entails significant opportunity for less than optimal results.
We are also hearing about difficulties when schools send money directly back to VA, as well as VA's concerns about how some schools do not identify the veterans whose account should be credited for returned overpayments and the resulting attempts by VA to collect overpayments from veterans.
Perhaps, Madam Chair, it is time for a temporary moratorium on chapter 33 collections until VA and the schools get the rules for handling the overpayment straightened out.
Again, we appreciate our witnesses today and look forward to the testimony.
I yield back.
[The prepared statement of Congressman Boozman appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Boozman.
Before we proceed I would like to ask unanimous consent for the Honorable Walt Minnick of Idaho to be allowed to participate in today's oversight hearing at a point in time which he may be joining us.
Hearing no objection so ordered.
I would like to welcome all of our panelists who are testifying before the Subcommittee today.
Joining us for the first panel of witnesses are Ms. Faith DesLauriers, Legislative Director for the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators (NAVPA). She is accompanied by Ms. Margaret Baechtold, Director of Veterans Support Services at Indiana University. Also joining us on this first panel is Dr. Alan Merten, President of George Mason University, who is representing the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU).
In the interest of time and courtesy to all of our panelists here today we ask that you limit your testimony to 5 minutes, focusing your comments and recommendations on areas of priorities in your written testimony.
The entire written statement that you have submitted to the Subcommittee has been entered into the record.
Ms. DesLauriers, we will begin with you. Welcome, and you are recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENT OF FAITH DESLAURIERS, LEGISLATIVE DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF VETERANS' PROGRAM ADMINISTRATORS; ACCOMPANIED BY MARGARET BAECHTOLD, DIRECTOR, VETERANS SUPPORT SERVICES, INDIANA UNIVERSITY, ON BEHALF OF NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF VETERANS' PROGRAM ADMINISTRATORS; AND ALAN G. MERTEN, PH.D., PRESIDENT, GEORGE MASON UNIVERSITY, ON BEHALF OF AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF STATE COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES
Ms. DESLAURIERS. Thank you and good afternoon Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and Members of the Subcommittee.
Accompanying me today is Margaret Baechtold, Director of Veterans Support Services at Indiana University.
We appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today and for the opportunity to share the concerns and recommendations of veteran program administrators, as well as that of the population they serve regarding education benefits.
In keeping with the three areas that you asked for information, the concerns that NAVPA hears from veterans regarding their education benefits are that students pursuing their education through distance learning should have the same eligibility for housing stipends as students attending what is defined as in-residence training.
Retired and separated veterans who earned and are otherwise eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill have voiced their concern and extreme disappointment in being denied the ability to transfer their entitlement to their dependents.
Veterans have also voiced their concern that the ability to pursue their educational endeavors are restricted to that which is deemed by Congress to be traditional.
Students don't understand why VA distinguishes between tuition and fees with different caps for each rather than combining them into one maximum.
Students are concerned that VA remains unable to credit refunds made by the schools to their accounts, and veterans are receiving letters from the Debt Management Center (DMC), although those students are current with their payment plans negotiated with DMC, in an effort to repay the emergency advance payments for fall 2009.
This particular issue is effecting their credit and their ability to gain credit.
Feedback from NAVPA, the schools that administer the GI Bill on campuses, there is a critical need for consistent guidance as to the correct procedures for returning or refunding payments, as well the assurance that those funds returned to the VA will in fact be credited to the veteran's debt or overpayment.
Many students who access their education benefits are placed at a financial disadvantage because of VA's policy to count class enrollment sessions versus enrollment sessions during a standard semester.
It is imperative that there be an efficient communication mechanism between schools and the VA.
Inconsistent guidance to schools among and between the regional processing offices (RPOs) and education liaison representatives (ELRs) continues to be problematic. Responsibilities associated with the program have increased the processing time for each claim at school level approximately 300 percent, yet institutions continue to be compensated at the rate of $7 for each student enrolled.
We request that that be changed, it has not been changed in over 30 years.
Reinstate the customer service units at each of the RPOs, specifically to work with the veteran program administrators.
Improvements to chapter 33 that NAVPA believes are needed, the GI Bill must remain an earned entitlement and not become a need-based award. Leave other scholarships, grants, et cetera, out of the equation.
Eliminate the inequities among rates paid to eligible individuals for attendance at schools of different types; public, private, foreign, graduate, undergraduate, resident or non-resident.
There should be an elimination of annual State tuition and fee maximums. That would improve timing of certification, processing, and payment and accuracy of those payments.
Tie the living stipend to the training time for all forms of course delivery and reduce the minimum training time requirement to half-time, rather than more than half-time.
And, correct the rule that makes it impossible for a reserve component member eligible at less than the 100 percent tier of chapter 33 to combine Federal tuition assistance, which is first pay, and chapter 33, which is second pay, in any way that would cover all of their charges. Clarify non-duplication of Federal programs.
NAVPA members fully support legislation that would expand the student work study program and overpayments created by the eligible individual as a result of a reduction or termination in enrollment but, should be recovered from entitlement.
NAVPA recommends elimination of the multiple levels of eligibility as it relates to required active-duty service.
Amend chapter 33 to expand educational and training opportunities such as on-the-job training/Apprenticeships and other viable and previously approved vocational training and continue to work toward providing equity in benefit and simplicity in rules regarding eligibility, payments, and the overall administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Again, thank you for this opportunity to participate in this hearing, to discuss current problems affecting veterans, as well as educational institutions, and to recommend solutions on behalf of our Nation's veterans, servicemembers and their dependents, and the National Association of Veterans' Program Administrators.
Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my statement. I would be pleased to answer any questions you or the Committee Subcommittee may have.
[The prepared statement of Ms. DesLauriers appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you for your testimony.
Dr. Merten, you are now recognized.
Dr. MERTEN. Madam Chair Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee, my name is Dr. Alan Merten and I am President of the George Mason University.
Today I represent and present the perspective of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities related to the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits programs. Thank you for holding this hearing.
When the Post-9/11 GI Bill was first introduced it, was anticipated that colleges and universities would see a 20 to 25 percent increase in enrollment of veterans. At Mason, we saw a 30 percent increase in fall 2009 enrollment and a 79 percent increase in spring 2010.
One of those newly enrolled veterans introduced President Obama, Vice President Biden, Senator Webb, Senator John Warner, and Secretary Shinseki at George Mason University when the bill was introduced nationally on August 3rd, 2009.
Your Committee asked that we address three areas. Concerns from veterans regarding their educational benefits. Second, feedback from institutions about implementation and administration of benefits. And three, improvements in the program that we suggest are needed.
GI Bill benefits have been historically provided to the veteran student. As Vietnam-era veterans, my wife and I received benefits in this manner.
The creation and implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit program altered this procedure by having the Veterans Affairs issue the funds directly to the institution after a certifying process.
The compressed timeline that the VA faced in implementing this program created a difficult situation for many schools and for veterans.
One of the major and universal issues faced by veteran students is related to delays. While there have been some delays in processing benefits, most benefit delays have occurred in reprocessing and in payment of other allowances, such as housing and book stipends.
Because of the changes in how the benefits are issued, student veterans rely on their school officials to provide the guidance and information they need.
The VA has often been slow in providing information beyond the basic essentials regarding benefits to institutions and veterans.
It is important to remember that the school official is not a VA employee, and in many cases does this additional task as a collateral duty.
As a result of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the workload on these staff members has increased to a point where many schools, like us at George Mason, have had to hire additional personnel to handle not only the certification process, but the billing process as well.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill has also presented higher education institutions with a number of challenges that include student veterans with academic, mental health, and physical disability needs.
The academic include veterans that require remedial education before starting college, some because they have lost skills in the years since high school and others because they were not college-ready in the first place.
A recent RAND report indicates that one in five Post-9/11 veterans will suffer from combat stress or cognitive issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Few schools, and even fewer student health centers are equipped to address these needs.
In addition to the mental health issues U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) indicates that there are over 36,000 servicemembers who have been wounded in action. Some of these wounded warriors have catastrophic combat injuries that are not typically found on campuses where disabilities have a far different meaning.
More effort to understand how institutions operate and work with the Federal Government must occur.
The VA interpretation of separating tuition and mandatory fees related to a cost of an education is just but one example. The higher education community refers to tuition and mandatory fees as a single amount, not two separate ones.
Student veterans change majors, drop or withdraw from a class, and have other circumstances that require the certifying offer to review and re-certify the veterans benefits.
To further complicate the return of funds in an overpayment situation, the VA established two procedures. One to use when classes that have not begun, another after classes have begun.
Contrast this process with the return of Federal financial assistant funds under the Higher Education Act. In these situations institutions recalculate the eligible amount and adjust accordingly. If a student has received an overpayment, the overage is returned to the Federal Government, if the student is eligible for additional funds, the school requests the additional funds.
Our recommendation is including asking Congress to clearly define the benefit amount for an individual. This entails, among other things, eliminating the separate factor for tuition fees.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which establishes a highest in-State rate for the academic year, fails to take into account tuition increases at institutions during the year. Some changes require to incorporate and to accommodate these tuition and fee increases that are midyear.
Another issue that Congress should address for the veteran is related to providing a basic allowance for housing, a basic housing allowance for nearly 70 percent of veterans who receive some of their education online.
Basic housing allowance benefits are only awarded now to veterans receiving their post-secondary education within the classroom setting.
Finally, we ask Congress to consider requiring the VA to collect and publish complete and timely data on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, including data on customer service by the VA to veteran students and institutions.
Institutions like George Mason University stand ready to work with the VA to provide and to ensure an ease of access for veterans enrolling in post-secondary education.
The good news is that the VA has increased its outreach to schools to work collaboratively and openly with the higher education community to understand how the VA processes could be improved to better and more effectively assist veteran students.
The higher education community is prepared and eagerly looks forward to working collaboratively with the VA to streamline this program and reduce the confusion to institutions, the VA, and more importantly the veteran.
Thank you for your attention.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Merten appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Dr. Merten.
We have a pending vote, but we are going to see if we can get through the questions that the Ranking Member and I have, at least for the folks on our first panel.
We have in past Congresses, and in this one, tried to grapple with the issue of other scholarships and other resources that veterans have available, and maybe even before they became eligible for education benefits with the VA they had taken out loans or had been eligible for Pell Grants.
I think you both mentioned it in your written testimony and referenced it briefly in the testimony you just provided, how do we keep the GI Bill from becoming a needs-based award? Is it related to VA being the last payer as it relates to how that effects other types of financial aid the student may receive?
Dr. MERTEN. From a perspective of President, and I also have to remember my wife always comments when someone asks me a detailed question, don't expect Alan for the detailed answer, he is just the President.
But from our perspective I would view and as a former beneficiary of the GI Bill this benefit is an earned benefit, pure and simple, and if there are other benefits that the veteran receives, you know, that is a separate issue, but I would hope this doesn't become a need base. This is a special benefit. It is not merit, it is not need, it is an award, and I think—hopefully that doesn't change.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Ms. DesLauriers?
Ms. DESLAURIERS. I believe it should not be reduced by any other financial assistance, that the GI Bill should not be reduced by any other assistance that is, the student receives regardless of where it comes from unless it meets the definition as currently defined in the law that it is another active-duty benefit.
So I think everybody agrees that if the student gets tuition assistance because they are on active duty, they should not be able to duplicate that benefit with their GI Bill.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Ms. DesLauriers, in your estimation, do you have any clear sense of what has prevented the VA from being able to credit refunds made by the schools to the students' accounts?
Ms. DESLAURIERS. No, ma'am.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Okay. Mr. Wilson may shed some light on that for us.
Ms. DESLAURIERS. Yes.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Then we have the issue that we have heard about and many of our colleagues have heard about directly from constituents or those from the State Approving Agencies that are working with some of these students. This is the issue of the overpayments and the difficult position that many veterans are being put in. If either of you could elaborate on the problems that you are seeing from your vantage point. I think Ms. DesLauriers you had mentioned when they get their letters from the Debt Management Center or other collection agencies that are actually calling and hounding our veterans who relied on the information and the calculation of benefits. I mean, I have heard a lot from some of my constituents, and it is effecting their credit, their access to credit, as you mentioned.
Do you want to elaborate at all and from your vantage point of some of the problems that the students you are familiar with are experiencing?
Ms. DESLAURIERS. I have one particular case, and I didn't bring the student name with me, but I would be glad to provide that for you, because she did authorize me to do that should you ask.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Okay.
Ms. DESLAURIERS. But the one case was a recent case of a student who actually went into—she got the emergency money in advance last year and she was paying her payments faithfully every single month like was agreed, and all of a sudden she started getting these letters from the Debt Management Center indicating that her credit, it had been turned over to all of these various credit agencies, and then she got notice from her credit card company, they canceled her credit card. She could no longer use her card. And I believe that she did speak with her representative about it, and just by happenstance she ran into him at a particular town meeting and was able to talk with him, and I believe that he would address that, but those are the kind of situations, and that is not just unique to my campus.
Apparently something happened just recently—and I am sure that Mr. Wilson can identify what could have happened in the system that caused that to happen—but just in general when the student has a debt then they are going to be turned over to the collection agency, and they get letters to that effect.
Well the matter of fact is there is no debt. The school has returned the money, it is just not being identified as having been returned.
And I will tell you that one of the other issues is that even the schools are sending checks to DMC and they are not being cashed, they are actually going void, and then our checks then become void, we have to stop payment on them, that costs the schools money to stop payment on those checks and reissue again. We have had that happen more than once with the same student where the check is 90 day, 90 days, and it never was cashed. So we don't really know that until we realize that our accounts are not balancing.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Mr. Boozman?
Mr. BOOZMAN. Thank you, Madam Chair.
Dr. Merten, you mentioned the problem of the ancillary fees, and all of the problems associated with that, with them occurring and then they are not there. And Ms. DesLauriers, again, similar things.
I guess, as we have dealt with this it seems to me like, and I would really just like your opinion, it seems like the current situation that we are in really isn't workable. Do you agree with that? I mean—
Ms. DESLAURIERS. Yes, sir.
Dr. MERTEN. Yeah, I particular—I mean your comments before, it is time to step back a little. I mean here we have something we have to do. I believe as a Nation we have this obligation, so we have to do it.
Now if we have to do it there is really—if you want the three players, there is the veterans, there is the institutions, and there is it is Federal Government, Veterans Affairs.
We have to ask ourselves what is—what are we trying to accomplish and then what is the role of each of the three? And I think in many cases we didn't do that, and now we have to do it.
And if we—you know, it ain't rocket science, and it is just—I think there is just things that weren't thought of particularly how we as institutions operate and then how—and what the requirement of the veteran—the returning veteran is having enough difficulty getting used to college, and to add these information burdens on it is unthinkable.
Mr. BOOZMAN. Yeah. No, I agree, and we appreciate your help in helping us sort that out, and we have had enough lapse in time now. It is not like the law was just passed, we have given it time, we have worked through a couple cycles, and so we have experience.
So I guess the only comment I would make, Madam Chair, is that you know, again, this is just something that we have to pursue, and as you are, and I appreciate your leadership in doing this. That we have to bring it to a head in working with individuals like this and the rest of our panel, working with VA that is also working so hard to get this done. Hopefully we will be able to arrive at a solution.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. All right, thank you, Mr. Boozman, and I know you made a recommendation in your opening remarks about a temporary moratorium on the collection efforts.
I think as you and I both know, we knew we were going to be in for some headaches, despite our support of this important benefit, because a lot of these things weren't completely thought through in the desire to move forward as quickly as possible to deliver the benefits. And as we do that, we need to recognize that we should be holding harmless the veteran.
We will work with the VA and with the institutions, while at the same time protecting the taxpayer. We all know from talking to our constituents that the veteran isn't being held harmless, and in a time of terrible downturn in the economy and tight credit, the last thing we need is for veterans credit scores to be effected as they are trying to get through, invest in themselves, and in many instances providing for their families.
We are going to have to head down for votes and then we will resume the questioning with Mr. Teague when we return for the first panel. We may have a second round of questioning for any further comments or questions that the Ranking Member or I may have. Okay?
The hearing will be in recess.
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. We appreciate everyone's patience as we have wrapped up the last votes for the day, so we can move ahead with the remainder of our hearing.
Ms. DesLauriers, in the essence of time I may have some additional questions that I will submit in writing that you can take for the record, Mr. Boozman may as well, and so we are going to move to our second panel.
But before we do and as you are taking your seats I do want to recognize Mr. Minnick for statement. Welcome. Thank you for joining us on the dais today.
Mr. MINNICK. Madam Chairwoman, Ranking Member Boozman, and Members of the Subcommittee, I thank you for allowing me to join this hearing today.
I would also like to thank our panel of representatives from the American Legion, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Veterans of Modern Warfare, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
I thank them for their military service and for the insight into what must be done to improve and simplify the new GI Bill, which this Congress passed with strong bipartisan support last year.
I would like to make a few brief remarks about the importance of this bill, H.R. 5933, and the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act."
In 1945, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs conducted a lengthy hearing to review the effectiveness of the first GI Bill, which was intended to give returning World War II veterans a college education in return for their service in saving the Nation from foreign aggression.
As we are doing today, Members of that Committee listened to veterans' groups request upgrades to the first version of the bill so that the benefits could be extended to things like vocational education and correspondence courses. And now, two generations later, we are doing the same thing today.
Just as the World War II GI Bill was upgraded to help educate what is often referred to as the greatest generation, we must upgrade and improve the new GI Bill to make it workable so it can fully satisfy the educational needs of a new generation of returning veterans.
As a veteran myself from the Vietnam-era, I have many friends who volunteered to serve in that war so they could go to college after they left the military and with their GI benefits to obtain the education necessary to launch into successful professional careers.
Having listened to many veteran service organizations and veterans from my home State of Idaho and elsewhere, I have introduced H.R. 5933 to offer the comprehensive improvements needed to make the new GI Bill fit the needs of this generations returning veterans.
To provide a brief example, students enrolling in an excellent private college in my district, Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa, Idaho, will directly benefit from this bill in several ways.
By raising the maximum tuition cap to $20,000 per year H.R. 5933 will significantly increase the tuition benefits available for veterans attending Northwest Nazarene, and other excellent, but expensive, private colleges.
The bill will also afford a living allowance to veterans opting to pursue their degrees online, a benefit they were previously denied.
It will also reimburse travel costs for distance learners, and includes a new $1,000 allowance for increasingly expensive student books, both hard copy and electronic.
The bill will also make educational benefits available for those veterans electing to pursue vocational education or other technical training.
My offices in Idaho and Washington have listened to stories shared by veterans who have been unable to take full advantage of the new GI's benefits, benefits Congress intended to confer with last year's legislation. Many others have had their benefits reduced or unnecessarily limited because of the effect of regulations imposed under the Bill.
To fulfill the promise we make to today's young people who volunteer to put their lives in harm's way to serve in the military and preserve our way of life, we must provide them with the education they need after their military service to be successful in today's high tech world.
This bill makes the corrections to last year's landmark GI Bill required for us to redeem that promise.
In closing, I would like to thank Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin for her support in this effort and very much look forward to working with her, Chairman Filner, the Ranking Member, and my Republican colleagues in moving this bill through to passage in the remaining days of this Congress.
Thank you and I yield back.
[The prepared Statement of Congressman Minnick appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Minnick, and I thank you for your hard work and your efforts not only with this Subcommittee and the full Committee, but working with a number of our veteran service organizations, and clearly with your constituents who have had concerns and have faced some barriers in fully accessing the education benefits that were authorized in the last Congress and what we can do the make the improvements. I thank you and I thank you for joining us today.
I would now like to invite the second panel to the witness table. Joining us on our second panel of witnesses is Mr. Donald Overton, Jr., Executive Director for the Veterans of Modern Warfare (VMW); Mr. James Wear, Assistant Director, National Veterans Service for the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States (VFW); Mr. Robert Madden, Assistant Director, National Economics Commission of the American Legion; and Mr. Tim Embree, Legislative Associate for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA).
Thank you all for being here at the Subcommittee and we look forward to your testimony.
Again, your written statements have been made part of the hearing record, and so we ask that you keep your remarks to 5 minutes.
Mr. Overton, we will begin with you. You are now recognized for 5 minutes.
STATEMENTS OF DONALD D. OVERTON, JR., EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, VETERANS OF MODERN WARFARE; JAMES D. WEAR, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, NATIONAL VETERANS SERVICE, VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS OF THE UNITED STATES; ROBERT MADDEN, ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, NATIONAL ECONOMIC COMMISSION, AMERICAN LEGION; AND TIM EMBREE, LEGISLATIVE ASSOCIATE, IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN VETERANS OF AMERICA
Mr. OVERTON. Thank you. Chairwoman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and distinguished Members of the Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity, on behalf of Veterans of Modern Warfare and our National President, Mr. Joseph Morgan, we thank you for the opportunity to present an update on the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
My name is Donald Overton and I currently serve as Executive Director for VMW.
Since the enactment of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, VMW members across the Nation have been afforded the opportunity to pursue educational endeavors at varying institutions of higher learning, yet, far too many have been left behind.
It became readily apparent that this historically significant legislation had a multitude of unforeseen limitations. Hopefully, this Committee, along with your colleagues in the 111th Congress, will correct these limitations and ensure the maximum effectiveness of the most generous investment in veterans' educational benefits since the end of World War II.
H.R. 5933, or GI Bill 2.0, as it has been referred to, remedies a multitude of concerns espoused by our student veteran members. These would include the opportunity to pursue vocational, apprenticeship, on-the-job training, correspondence, and flight training educational programs; full GI Bill credit for full-time National Guard service, to include full-time title 32 Active Guard Reserve; a housing stipend for distance learners, or those studying less than full-time; Yellow Ribbon benefits to certain National Guard and Reserve personnel members; and an equivalent book stipend for active-duty students.
We are however concerned by certain language found within the legislation. Our primary concern may be found at section 11, the proposed elimination of the cost of living allowance for chapter 30, Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) recipients to afford a cost of living allowance for chapter 33 Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients. Taking benefits from one class of veterans to pay for another is an unjust policy consideration and should not have been proposed. We urge you to eliminate this from any bill that goes forward.
Given the prescribed effective date of August 2011, we believe this will afford the VA and school administrators, ample time to train and prepare for the adjusted benefit package, which will also assuage what has been a primary concern of school administrators, the lack of communication, and training time by the VA.
Our Nation owes veterans much more than blood money, especially to our veterans who have been disabled in service to our country.
The central event in their readjustment process is being able to secure gainful work at a living wage. Without a major cultural transformation within the Department of Veterans Affairs as prescribed by H.R. 3719, the "Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration Act of 2009," the most well intention chapter 33 legislative remedies may be doomed to failure.
H.R. 3719 establishes in the Department of Veterans Affairs a Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration to be headed by an Under Secretary for Veterans Economic Opportunity. It will put under one roof the following VA programs. Vocational rehabilitation and employment; educational assistance; veterans' housing, loan, and related programs; veterans' entrepreneurship; and homeless veterans.
This bill also would establish as an interagency committee, the Department of Veterans Affairs-U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), as well as the Small Business Administration Joint Executive Committee on Economic Opportunity to recommend to the secretaries of Veterans Affairs and Labor and the administrator of the Small Business Administration strategic direction for the joint coordination and sharing of efforts to promote and administer veterans economic opportunity programs, as well as overseeing the implementation of those efforts.
Unfortunately, we have seen time and again the VA's failure to properly implement the benefit programs within their purview. These failures have been particularly pervasive within the Veterans Benefits Administration. It is imperative that during this era of cultural transformation within the VA, under Secretary Shinseki's bold leadership, that the Veterans Economic Opportunity Administration be created.
Removing these relevant programs from the antiquated and over-burdened Veterans Benefit Administration will ensure the viability of veterans' economic opportunities for their futures, a just reward from a grateful Nation.
Madam Chairwoman, VMW again thanks you for this opportunity to express our views, and will be pleased to respond to any questions you or your colleagues may have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Overton appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Overton.
Mr. Wear, you are recognized.
Mr. WEAR. Chairman Herseth Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman, and the Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of the 2.1 million members of the VFW and our Auxiliaries, we would like to thank the Subcommittee for giving us the opportunity to testify today on the veterans' concerns regarding their education benefits and improvements to the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The VFW is very proud to have worked with this Subcommittee to pass the Post-9/11 GI Bill in July of 2008. A generation of veterans is now better equipped to seek higher education, with hundreds and thousands of veterans in schools across the Nation directly benefiting from the dedication, work, and leadership of this Subcommittee and its staff.
Last year, VA had a quote, “Spring 2010 GI Bill Benefit Processing” Web site. It was used to track their processing of education enrollments during the 2009-2010 academic year. There is no Web site to track the payment of educational benefits during this 2010-2011 academic year.
VFW suggests the same type of Web site should be set up by VA to track the processing of both chapter 33, Post-9/11 GI Bill, and non-chapter 33 education payments made during this academic year of 2010-2011.
VA is to be commended for having already processed over 150,000 chapter 33 enrollments, but VA's educational workload reported this past Monday that there is 173,000, almost 174,000, non-chapter 33 enrollments still pending.
We believe that the VA needs to focus on not only chapter 33, but also on the timely processing of non-chapter 33 enrollments, Montgomery GI Bill, AEP, et cetera.
There are additional improvements that can be made by re-examining the Post-9/11 GI Bill with an eye toward simplifying and strengthening the benefits it provides. We offer a number of suggestions to improve, simplify, and strengthen the legislation with the goal of ensuring equitable benefits for equivalent service.
The VFW offers its strong support for H.R. 5933, the "Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Improvements Act of 2010."
The VFW believes a number of changes can be made to the Post-9/11 GI Bill to adjust the needs of today's servicemembers, veterans, and their families. Many of these changes are reflected in the Bill.
Of the many positive changes in this legislation, the provisions that would allow Guard and Reserve members to count active-duty service under title 32 towards chapter 33 eligibility is perhaps the most important. This change will credit these men and women for their services in securing our Nation's borders and airports, cleaning up the Gulf, saving lives and property after natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. Making sure the Reserve component receives equitable benefits for equivalent service is a top VFW priority.
To further strengthen the benefit, the legislation would also eliminate the State-based payment cap, replacing it with a guarantee that chapter 33 benefits will fully cover the cost of any public undergraduate or graduate program in the Unites States.
Further, it offers a dollar for dollar match up to $20,000 per year for all approved non-public institutions of higher learning, IHLs, in the United States and foreign IHLs.
The VFW also supports providing housing stipends for veterans pursuing a program of education at a foreign IHL, at a half-time rate of training, through distance learning, and utilizing the chapter 31 vocational rehabilitation program.
This legislation looks to expand the GI Bill to include on-the-job training and apprenticeships.
The original GI Bill provided training for apprenticeships and vocational training for World War II veterans. We believe the Post-9/11 GI Bill should also provide our current veterans with the same opportunities to seek careers in skilled trades.
These programs represent the most effective direct employment programs available to our Nation's newest veterans. Many veterans have transferable knowledge and technical skills acquired in the military that gives them a head start on earning a technical education that would help us re-energize our economy.
The proposed change to the lump sum payment for books, supplies, equipment, and other educational costs for individuals on active duty pursuing a program of education is also supported by the VFW.
This legislation will establish a process allowing a veteran to take multiple licensure and/or certification tests and that there would be no charge to the veterans entitlement for these tests as long as they did not exceed $2,000. Again, the VFW supports this.
By streamlining processes and opening new avenues to education and training, veterans will be better equipped to make their ambitions a reality.
Once again, thank you for hearing the voice of the VFW and its members. We look forward to continuing to work with you to improve the lives of America's veterans and their families.
Madam Chairwoman, this concludes my testimony. I would be pleased to respond to any questions you or the Members of your Subcommittee may have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Wear appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Wear.
Mr. Madden, you are recognized.
Mr. MADDEN. Thank you.
Thank you, Madam Chairwoman and Ranking Member Boozman for allowing the American Legion to give its views on the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
Last fall, the number of veterans receiving delayed payments rose by the tens of thousands. VA did not have enough staff to take on the overwhelming task of processing Post-9/11 GI Bill claims on their antiquated system.
Measures were taken to increase productivity, including hiring additional claims processors, mandatory overtime, and having the VA Central Office also process claims.
One year later where are we? While the VA has made strides in processing claims efficiently, the American Legion still receives calls and e-mails from veterans and their families about the financial burden they are forced to undergo due to the delayed payment of housing allowance.
Yes, VA does have the updated IT system up and running, but we still continue to receive information from the field that veterans are forced to make drastic decisions in their financial planning to make ends meet until they receive their payment.
Just last week, I received multiple e-mails from student veterans making note of the following issues with VA. One, initial processing is very slow. Two, unable to get a person on the phone to physically talk to about their issues. And three, the amount of funding initially allocated was incorrect and took time, long lengths to rectify.
Communication also seems to be a constant concern. RPOs give schools one policy while another RPO gives another school a different policy setting up veterans and their families for failure.
If a veterans benefit are not processed correctly, they are forced to navigate a maze of VA bureaucracy and departments that don't talk to each other, VA Education Services and VA Debt Management Center, and until these issues are rectified, sometimes taking months, the veteran has to survive without their monthly living allowance.
The American Legion consistently receives calls and e-mails about the undue burden, the slow process of GI Bill payments, and how it adversely affects them and their families. Veterans are incurring undue debt to manage the time between payments, and when they finally do receive those payments, many aren't sure if they are correct.
Yes, the new IT system should allow veterans to self-navigate their claim in December of 2010, but until then how many veterans need to go through the stress and burden making life changing decisions just to go to school?
This is an earned benefit that is designed to be a viable transition for veterans to continue with their education and make it a successful transition to employment. Veterans who might suffer from PTSD and TBI need to have a hassle-free transition. Going to college is a path to success, and if we make this process harder for them, we are doing them a disservice. This cannot continue on.
There are four additional issues that the American Legion would also like to address. Housing allowance for distance learners, full funding of title 32 Active Guard Reserves, vocation and technical training correspondence and flight training, and the transferability for those who have already retired.
The American Legion has organizational resolutions which advocate for these issues to be addressed. The American Legion is excited to work with this Committee on getting these measures passed and see equity brought to veterans and their families.
The American Legion currently is the ardent supporter of H.R. 5933 and looks forward working with the Committee to getting this passed.
I thank you for the opportunity to give the American Legion's position, and look forward to working with the Members of the Subcommittee on veterans education. I would be happy to answer any questions you might have.
[The prepared statement of Mr. Madden appears in the Appendix.]
Ms. HERSETH SANDLIN. Thank you, Mr. Madden.
Mr. Embree, you are recognized.
Mr. EMBREE. Thank you.
Madam Chairwoman, Ranking Member, and Members of the Subcommittee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of Amer