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Witness Testimony of Keith M. Wilson, Veterans Benefit Administration, Director, Education Service, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

Good afternoon Chairwoman Herseth-Sandlin, Ranking Member Boozman and members of the Subcommittee.  I am pleased to be here today to discuss the current state of the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) and potential ways to improve upon its success and the success of the other educational assistance programs administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  My testimony will address areas in which the MGIB could be updated, streamlined, and simplified.  In addition, I will comment on selected bills which have been introduced in the 110th Congress and certain concepts and provisions within those bills in which we find merit, as well as areas which could potentially be problematic.  VA defers to the Department of Defense on how the various legislative proposals would affect Title 10 education benefit programs whose primary objectives are force recruitment and retention.  However, I will comment on how the selected bills will affect program implementation and costs.

We are pleased to report that in fiscal year 2007, we paid an estimated $2.8 billion in benefits to approximately 500,000 trainees.  These benefits covered chapters 30, 32, and 35 of Title 38, and chapters 1606 and 1607 of Title 10.  Payments are made for studies in educational, vocational, on-the-job training and apprenticeship programs, completion of licensing and certification exams, and flight training.  In fiscal year 2007, we processed original claims in 32.4 days and supplemental claims in 13.2 days.  This represents an improvement of approximately seven days from our FY06 processing times of 40.1 and 19.8 days.  The reduction in our processing times also met or exceeded the performance goals set forth for FY07.

VA’s education benefit programs have been very successful in helping servicemembers in their successful readjustment to civilian life.  Education benefits are frequently identified as a primary reason that individuals enlist in the armed forces. 

Recent congressional actions have addressed areas that we see as essential to the continued vitality of our educational benefit programs.  For example, VA supports in principle the proposal in S. 1293, for the expansion of accelerated payment, although we do have concerns arising from the potential inequities created by the annual payment limits mentioned in this bill.  Another proposed bill, H.R. 797, would extend certain provisions of the Work Study program through June 30, 2012.  VA believes these provisions of the Work Study program serve a valuable purpose, and we agree they should be extended.

The programs we administer, including MGIB-Active Duty, MGIB-Selected Reserve, and the Readjustment Educational Assistance Program (REAP), in their current forms are a complex group of programs with complicated benefit eligibility criteria.  VA appreciates Congress’s strong interest in streamlining the education benefits available to veterans and servicemembers; however many of the proposals currently under consideration by Congress not only create additional eligibility categories but, in the process, also include retroactive eligibility criteria with amendments otherwise effective on the date of enactment.   A multitude of programs and eligibility criteria create confusion for veterans, our partners in the Department of Defense (DoD), and for our Department, as well.  This also works against our efforts to further improve program participation and understanding.  We share your desire to improve education benefits available to veterans; however, we believe it should be done with the goal of streamlining existing programs versus adding new programs and additional layers of complexity associated with administering them.  Further, many of the current proposals would expand benefit amount and/or eligibility; we cannot support any costly expansion of benefit without identified offsets.

Two proposals which have garnered a great deal of attention would create a chapter 33 benefit, a new program for post September 11, 2001 servicemembers and veterans (S. 22 and S. 1409/H.R. 2385).  These proposals are prohibitively costly.  Further, under the current benefits structure, many individuals find themselves potentially eligible under one or more of the three VA-administered programs that I previously mentioned.  Those individuals are tasked with comparing payment rates and impact on kickers to determine which program would be most advantageous in their individual circumstances.  Incorporating a new chapter 33 program, the extent of entitlement to which would require factoring in length of service and previous benefits usage, would make the process even more complex and difficult for individuals to understand.

Finally, I note additional concerns with certain other pending legislation.  Senate bills 723, 1719, and 698 and House bills 112 and 1102 raise issues of equity in providing benefits to veterans and servicemembers.  For example, these bills contain provisions that would give preference to one period of service or benefit program over another.  S. 723 proposes to reimburse the payroll reduction required for MGIB enrollment to members of the Armed Forces who served after November 16, 2001, through the date of termination of Executive Order 13235.  Many individuals bravely served our country during periods that do not coincide with these dates; these individuals would be disadvantaged merely because of their dates of service.  Both S. 1409 and H.R. 2385 include provisions that would exclude graduate programs from eligibility.  Today, many individuals enter the service with at least some amount of post-secondary education.  Disallowing graduate training would limit the eligible person’s choices and the ability to use the maximum entitlement earned, as well as create an inequity among those eligible to receive the benefit. 

Additionally, Senate bills 22, 1409, 1719, and 644 and House bill 1102 pose significant logistical obstacles by requiring substantial changes to entitlement determinations and payment methods.  These new payment methods would require extensive enhancements to existing payment systems with significant attendant costs, implementation delay, and impact on current claims processing.  Our continued concern is limiting the impact on beneficiaries and ensuring timely receipt of payments.

In closing, I reiterate that VA is dedicated to providing the most beneficial education programs to veterans and their dependents.  We believe that changes made to enhance these benefits must not create an extra burden on the beneficiaries by making the programs more complex.

This concludes my statement.  I appreciate the opportunity to testify before the Subcommittee and would be pleased to address any questions you or other members of the Subcommittee may have.