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Witness Testimony of Robert Madden, American Legion, Assistant Director, National Economic Commission

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Although the Post-9/11 Bill was the single greatest benefit offered to the Post-9/11 veteran, the implementation fell far short of the needs of those new veterans. Delays in applying for and receiving benefits has been the single greatest failure during the implementation in the past year. The American Legion heard from hundreds of veterans and their families discussing the issue of delayed or no payment. These late payments caused veterans and families to drop out of school due to financial hardship.
To alleviate some of these issues, the Department of Veterans Affairs has increased the number of claims processors and is implementing a new IT system to help streamline the claims process and should have a self navigating system that veterans can access by December 2010. This will go a long way in addressing many of the preliminary problems that still plague veterans and their family members.

The American Legion recommends communication between Regional Processing Offices (RPO) be uniform. There are schools that have campuses across the nation and are therefore using multiple RPO’s for information. Institutions are receiving multiple policy protocols from separate RPO’s for the same situation which in turn causes confusion for veterans and educational institutions. This process of getting different responses from separate RPO’s needs to be addressed and communication must be accurate and similar across the Nation.

In order to properly serve the veterans and families of this country, The American recommends several changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Those changes include: allowing housing allowance for distance learners; addition of vocational, apprenticeship, on-the-job training and flight training; transfer of educational benefits to dependents of those who have retired from active duty, and inclusion of Title 32 Active Guard Reserves to receive Federal benefits under Chapter 33.

No matter what era, we should not forget the sacrifice of those who served in our military. However, the latest generation of veterans and their families have experienced a new hardship and experience due to multiple deployments and a changing nature of war. These veterans deserve the highest quality of service when receiving benefits and should be granted the opportunity to choose their education and employment path when returning to school.


Madam Chairwoman, Ranking Member Boozman and Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for this opportunity to present The American Legion’s views on the status of the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008. The American Legion commends the subcommittee for holding a hearing to discuss this very important and timely issue. 

American men and women are serving in two wars, while also serving this great nation in various capacities across the globe.  Veterans who have served since September 11, 2001 are entitled to education benefits, not just any education benefits, but the most comprehensive benefits since the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.  The original WWII benefit is said to have produced 50 years of economic prosperity for America.  With over 2 million service members having served since 2001, the Post 9/11 GI Bill can do the same thing for this country and give this new “Greatest Generation” an education. 

The American Legion has not only been a lead supporter of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, but also a concerned advocate during the implementation.  The 111th Congress has held hearings on the long-term and short-term implementation strategies for administration of the Post 9/11 GI Bill by the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).  These hearings updated Congress on VA’s development of the information technology components for the new law and the progress made during implementation.  The American Legion testified before Congress last year about its concerns regarding VA’s implementation strategies and urged VA to be ready to fulfill its administrative duties “right the first time

Since the passage and the implementation of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, VA had a rough and rocky start.  Thinking they were fully prepared to implement the biggest changes in GI Bill history, VA set out to put their best foot forward in August 2009.  They soon found that the implementation system was flawed and there was no easy way to process a Certificate of Eligibility or an actual claim.  A processor for the old Montgomery GI Bill needed only around 30 minutes to process a claim, but for the components of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, this time ballooned to close to 2 hours per claim.  This time intensive process compounded by a lack of adequate staff fostered a significant backlog of education claims.

Unfortunately, many veterans waited weeks and months just to get their Certificate of Eligibility, let and even longer to actually receive benefits. These men and women gave up their jobs in order to better their employment chances by going to school.  It should be noted, to be able to get the most out of the benefit, a veteran or family member needs to take a course load of over half-time.  In the worst case scenarios, veterans who recently left the military were without a job and without their education benefit from VA.  The American Legion received hundreds of calls and emails from veterans discussing their financial difficulties and the possibility of homelessness was sometimes mentioned.  The American Legion responded to a number of these veterans with Temporary Financial Assistance, one of our many programs to assist veterans and their families. 

When the cries for assistance reached its highest levels, , VA responded and made provided individuals who were in school an emergency payment of up to $3,000.  The American Legion applauded and still agrees this was a smart decision to make, but now is seeing the backlash from this decision.  Now, there are reports of veterans and their family members losing all of their future payments instead of the proposed $750.00 reduction VA promised from the payment plan.  VA has taken steps to rectify this situation, but some of the damage has already been done.  Many veterans and their families called The American Legion because they cannot get through to VA and need information.  We take pride in assisting them, but need VA’s cooperation to get issues resolved.  The American Legion believes there needs to be more oversight on decisions that are made to ensure proper implementation, so that the veteran or his/her family member is not the one who suffers. 

Another recurring issue is overpayment.  There have been reports of schools being overpaid, which is why many schools are waiting for the add/drop period before sending in the veteran’s enrollment certification.  In spite of this move by the schools, the veteran is still being overpaid; consequently, the schools send back the money, but it is not being reported back to the VA in a timely manner.  Ultimately, the veteran is then denied their housing allowance and books stipend, until their payment is recouped by VA. This causes an undue burden for the veteran and his/her family and causes, again, another financial hardship.  Every time a mistake happens, it does not affect VA, but does manage to cause problems for the veteran.  Closer oversight on these issues would be the fix to many of these problems. 

One of the main challenges VA faces is communication.  One Regional Office (RO) says the veteran can do something one way and then another RO says the veteran cannot.  Secondly, a veteran or family member will call the 1-800 numbers for education assistance and will ask a question.  That same veteran will call back, get a different operator and ask the same question.  What the veteran receives, on occasion, is multiple answers.  The veteran needs to receive the same answer so he/she can properly navigate the education process.

The American Legion also would like to bring to the Committee’s attention a flaw that exists in the Post 9/11 GI Bill.  With all the great benefits the Post 9/11 GI Bill offers, it has unfortunately left out a few educational choices.  The American Legion is a strong supporter of allowing the Post 9/11 GI Bill to be used for non-degree granting institutions.  This employment path is a more traditional choice, but vocational, apprenticeship, on-the-job training and flight training are not payable by the current bill (Post 9/11).  This disparity has caused much concern for The American Legion.  We have found that not every veteran has the time or is considering attending college.  They might have a family and need to become gainfully employed as soon as possible, which is something that vocational, on-the-job training, apprenticeship and flight training offer.  Instead, a veteran may choose a more traditional path and attend a non-degree institution, but cannot use their Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits to complete these courses.  Most of these education paths consist of a shorter training time and can lead to immediate employment.  The American Legion believes that veterans should never be limited in the manner they use their educational benefits. 

The American Legion also sees other areas where the Post-9/11 GI Bill can be improved.  Those who have served since September 11, 2001 and retired before the implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill should be allowed to transfer their educational benefits to their dependents.  We also note the increased utilization of online distance learning.  Currently, those who attend classes strictly online are prohibited from receiving the housing allowance.  These men and women take these classes due to the flexibility they offer.  Veterans who attend these classes have families and may need flexibility to be able to advance their career and should be entitled to the housing allowance.  The greatest equity issue is those men and women who served during the crisis of September 11, 2001.  These Title 32 Active Guard Reserve members served under federal orders but were not allowed to include their federal time for eligibility for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.  These men and women served valiantly and with distinction.  This is a must fix and needs to be addressed immediately.

Currently, there are two bills, H.R. 5933 and S. 3447, which are companion measures. These bills propose changes to the Post 9/11 GI Bill to make the Post-9/11 GI Bill a stronger benefit for veterans and their families.  The American Legion supports both of these bills.  Veterans should be free to choose their school and get the education they believe is best for them and their family.

Even with some challenges and missteps, The American Legion continues to ensure veterans and their families get the necessary assistance during this education transition.  The American Legion recently held the “Veterans on Campus” education symposium, which tried to identify best practices on how to assist veterans in their transition from the military to college life.  We found a large number of student-veterans and academia did not have sufficient information about the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits.  VA needs to provide more outreach to colleges and universities around the country to ensure these student-veterans have a full range of knowledge concerning their education benefits.  The American Legion is excited about the final implementation of the new IT for veterans.  We hope this IT solution helps resolve many of the application, payment and communication problems that have been experienced.

 Although the VA has taken many necessary steps in order to provide a fluid transition for veterans and their families, we have seen numerous bumps along the way.  Sometimes, as in the case of the emergency payment, VA has had to make some tough choices to correct those problems.  The American Legion will continue to monitor the continued transition for the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

The American Legion appreciates the opportunity to present this statement for the record.  Again, thank you Madame Chairwoman, Ranking Member Boozman, and Members of the Subcommittee for allowing The American Legion to present its views on this very important issue.