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Witness Testimony of Tim Embree, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Legislative Associate

Madam Chairwoman, Ranking Member, and members of the subcommittee, on behalf of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America’s over two hundred thousand members and supporters, I would like to thank you for allowing us to testify before your subcommittee. As a representative of IAVA, I also extend the gratitude of tens of thousands of our members who can now afford to attend school, and become the Next Greatest Generation.

I. Executive Summary:

Our work on the new GI Bill is not done. The Post-9/11 GI Bill is a historic commitment to this generation of veterans and over 300,000 students have taken advantage of this hard earned benefit. But, while some student veterans are on the path to earning themselves a first class future, tens of thousands of veterans are being left behind. Too many young veterans find themselves unable to take advantage of these GI Bill benefits and many others, already using the new GI Bill, have had their benefits cut by needlessly complicated regulations in Chapter 33. In order to complete our work on the new GI Bill, IAVA recommends swift passage of H.R. 5933, commonly referred to as the New GI Bill 2.0.

New GI Bill 2.0 finishes the Post 9/11 GI Bill and includes:

  • Vocational Training: Invaluable job training for students studying at vocational schools.
  • Title 32 AGR: Grant National Guardsmen responding to national disasters full GI Bill credit.
  • Distance Learners: Provide living allowances for veterans in distance learning programs.
  • Tuition/Fees: Expand and simplify the Yellow Ribbon Program.
  • Active Duty: Include a book stipend for active duty students.

Over the past year IAVA has helped thousands of veterans navigate through their GI Bill benefits and we have trained hundreds of schools on the ins and outs of the new GI Bill. Our daily interactions with student veterans and schools have revealed the following concerns regarding the VA’s handling of the new GI Bill.

  • Student veterans complete their assignments on time and so should the VA: Nine months late updating the new BAH rates and one month late publishing the 2010-11 tuition/fees chart.
  • Delays are imminent: 160,000 backlogged GI Bill claims, 60 percent more than any other time this decade with the exception of last year. This will mean unacceptably long wait times, yet again.
  • Processing remains plagued by repeated mistakes: Many veterans have been erroneously denied benefits and are forced to spend months trying to unravel the errors.
  • Lack of reliable information costs veterans: The irrevocable choice between the new and old GI Bill is worth thousands of dollars and VA still lacks good resources to help inform that choice.
  • Refunds of overpayments: There are no guidelines for schools to follow to repay the VA for erroneous tuition overpayments and this results in veterans having their entire GI Bill withheld.

II. Introduction

IAVA believes that by finishing the work Congress began two years ago, this historic commitment to our veterans will be remembered as one of the shrewdest investments in our country’s men and women in uniform for generations to come.

Today’s veterans are our country’s leaders of tomorrow. Hundreds of thousands of combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have served honorably and are now looking to utilize the Post-9/11 GI Bill to begin the next chapter of their lives. Thanks to the most generous increase in education benefits since World War II these veterans and their families now have the opportunity to pursue a “first-class” education.  

IAVA has gained unique insight into where implementation of the New GI Bill has succeeded and where it has failed. For over two years, IAVA has been assisting student veterans navigate this generous, yet complicated, new benefit.  Nearly 1 million people have visited our premier GI Bill resource, www.newgibill.org. We offer the most accurate benefits calculator, Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), and resources where veterans can find answers to their GI Bill questions. As we have stated over and over again, the VA must improve their outreach. By working closely with IAVA and the VSO community the VA could be solving problems before they arise rather than constantly reacting to the latest crisis.

On top of the VA’s rocky implementation, we recognize that the new GI Bill is still a work in progress. Once finished, the new GI Bill will be a shining moment in the history of our great republic. Everyday we wait to pass upgrades to the new GI Bill, tens of thousands of veterans are ineligible to access this new education benefit and many others using the new GI Bill have had their benefits cut by one of the many poorly written regulations in Chapter 33.

III. Lessons Learned for the New GI Bill’s Sophomore Year

IAVA has been cautioning student veterans to prepare for another rough autumn and has been pleading with the VA to be as transparent as possible. The VA has made some significant improvements in their handling of the new GI Bill since last year. However, IAVA is deeply concerned that the VA has been failing to communicate critical information to students and schools, missing key congressionally mandated deadlines and will likely have unacceptably long delays in the processing of GI Bill benefits again this semester.

  1. Student veterans complete their assignments on time and so should the VA.

 The VA has owed over 150,000 student veterans additional living allowance payments for over 9 months. In January the Department of Defense’s new housing rates took affect and in turn students attending over 4,000 colleges were due an increase in their living allowances. This increase amounted to over $200/month at some schools including Long Island University, University of Massachusetts and University of Connecticut.

“When are they going to adjust the BAH rates for 2010? No matter who I call or email about this issue, I never get a straight answer. I am currently living in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and the rates were increased by $111 for my area as of Jan 1 2010. It is nearly August and they have yet to increase. Any info you can provide me with would be helpful.” – Chris (IAVA Vet)

Sadly, the VA’s only mention of how they would handle the new rate changes was a tweet from one of the VA’s many twitter accounts on December 18th and was not mentioned again for over 9 months.

@DeptVetAffairs: For GI Bill students: BAH rates will remain the same to begin the spring semester. Any changes won't happen until later in the spring.

Phone calls to the GI Bill call center left veterans even more confused about when they could expect to be paid. IAVA believes that keeping veterans like Chris in the dark for over 9 months about their benefits is completely unacceptable. Thankfully, earlier this month the VA finally made a public announcement on their website outlining how they will handle this issue.

The living allowance payments were not the only benefit the VA has been delinquent. The VA is mandated to issue the state tuition caps on August 1st of each year to help veterans and schools adequately plan for the fall semester. Unfortunately, the VA failed to publish this tuition chart for exactly a month.  As a result, students started school with no idea what the new GI Bill would cover. Schools were asked to submit enrollment certifications and the VA would just process the tuition benefits later. Now the VA will have to go back and recertify all the new GI Bill claims they received in the month of August during the VA’s busiest season of the year.

Why does this matter? Ask the student veterans attending schools in Minnesota like Northwestern College who are now on the hook to pay an additional $7,000 in tuition this year. These students started classes in late August only to see their tuition benefits drop $300/credit a week later. Northwestern was likely deferring those tuition costs in the hopes that the GI Bill would be paying at least as much as last year, but now those students will have to shell out an additional $7,000 just to stay in class.  The VA will claim that they did not know all the tuition caps until September 1st, but they did know many of them and should have published what they had as soon as they knew them.

“I just talked to the financial aid director at my school here in St. Paul, Minnesota. I found out today that the VA has cut the MN tuition cap at $450 per credit. It was listed on their website as $750 until this week. Partially as a result of the $750 rate, I made the decision to move my family from California to Minnesota. Now I am faced with suddenly receiving $4200 less per semester in assistance than I had anticipated…. My school choice was directly affected by the amount that I thought I would be receiving, based upon the VA's officially posted rates. Also, there are those who have barely managed to budget enough money to go to school. Now telling them that they will be receiving significantly less than they had been depending on could force them out of school. I understand that budgets are tight everywhere. However, I feel cheated by finding out after the fact. This is information they should have given us months ago.” –Aaron (IAVA Vet)

  1. Student veterans need to know that GI Bill delays are imminent.

When I called today to check on my GI Bill status, the telephone advisor told me that due to the upgrade that put them behind for about a week they are estimating it can take around 41 days for them to process the enrollment information and get the funds to the schools and vets.” – Brent (IAVA Vet)

Student veterans enrolling in school this Fall should be prepared to wait a long time for their GI Bill benefits to process. The VA has a GI Bill backlog of over 185,000 claims, nearly 50 percent more than any other time this decade, except last year. And although the VA has kept the number of outstanding new GI Bill claims at a steady rate (~18,000) the old GI Bill users are suffering because of it (over 168,000). These delays are unacceptable and continue to put too much pressure on student veterans. They should be trying to focus on their studies and not worrying about keeping a roof over their heads due to the VA’s inability to manage information. The VA should also publish the expected wait times prominently on their website, to help student veterans have realistic expectations of when their benefits will arrive.

Line graph showing the GI Bill Backlog

IAVA recommends the VA implement the following concrete ideas: 1) Post a waiting time widget on the VA’s GI Bill homepage saying, “Now working on GI Bill claims from (fill in the date)” and 2) Reinstitute the practice of disclosing the date of the oldest pending GI Bill claim in the Monday Morning Workload report.

  1. Processing of new GI Bill claims remain plagued by repeated mistakes.

In the haste to clear the deck of GI Bill claims, many veterans have been erroneously denied benefits and are forced to spend months trying to unravel the errors.

Since January of this year I have been receiving letters that I owe the VA for 2 semesters that they claim I dropped out. I never did and have been given the run around by both the VA and the school but neither side tell me anything. I have been doing this for 6 months and worst of all is that they are taking my entire check leaving me with nothing to purchase books or to use to pay bills. Because of this I am in extreme debt, I have a two-month-old baby, which needs diapers and baby wipes and have fallen into depression again because the creditors call me constantly asking for payment. I am not working at the time because I want to focus on school. I am getting disability and work-study payments, but even so I keep going in the negative side in my bank account. I have no clue how else to pressure the school and the VA to promptly fix the situation and give me back the money they wrongfully took. If you can't help me could you please send me to someone who can.” IAVA Vet

IAVA contacted the VA regional office on this student veteran’s behalf.  They corrected his file, erased his debt and issued him a back payment of over $7,900. He told IAVA that the VA finally paid him on his daughter’s birthday and that he can now buy her a real birthday present. And while IAVA is eternally grateful to the Regional Offices for continuing to solve the GI Bill issues we send their way, this story is just the tip of the iceberg. Many other veterans don’t even know there has been a mistake or they give up when no one seems to be willing to take up their cause. IAVA believes that the VA must do an immediate audit of their GI Bill claims processing and publically announce their error rates. Veterans who are fighting with the VA about their benefits should know that they aren’t alone.

  1. Lack of reliable information costs veterans.

Veterans making the irrevocable choice between the old and new GI Bill are forced to make that decision without immediate, reliable access to key information that may affect tens of thousands of dollars in their education benefits.

“My VA rep at my school told me to apply for the new post 9/11 GI Bill because I had already collected the 36 months on the old GI Bill. So, I applied for the new GI bill to get the extra 12 months of benefits and I just received an approval letter for 3 days of the new GI bill benefits because I still had 3 days left on the old GI bill.” - Charles (IAVA Vet)

If Charles had known that he had 3 days remaining on the old GI Bill he could have simply waited an extra couple of days before he applied and he would have been able to attend school for at least another academic year under the new GI Bill.  Unfortunately for Charles the lack of good information meant that he simply lost his new GI Bill benefits.

Charles’ story is a cautionary tale for all student veterans and more importantly the VA. While the VA has spent most of their focus making sure veterans know that their choice to use the new GI Bill is “irrevocable” (bold and italics on the VA form), they have failed to show student veterans what that actually means to them personally. For example, the VA’s GI Bill benefits estimator is an inexcusable tool for a Department that has spent millions on GI Bill information technology. This tool does not help veterans compare benefits between the old and GI Bill in any meaningful way.

How do I determine what the amount is for so I can make sure I'm getting the proper benefits? In other words, I want a statement. I called the VA and they told me "no" - there was no statement and I would have to determine the benefits myself by pro-rating book costs, BAH, etc. There must be an easier way....” – Jonathan (IAVA Vet)

The VA has testified numerous times that they are scheduled to unveil a student portal for veterans to track their GI Bill benefits by the end of the year. Many student veterans and schools have requested this functionality and IAVA sincerely hopes that the VA meets its own internal deadline of Dec 2011. However, IAVA is deeply concerned that veterans and schools have not been involved in the development of this new functionality. We believe that the VA should immediately engage student veterans, campus officials and veterans groups during the final stages of development. IAVA also strongly encourages the VA to allow school certifying officials access to student information.  More often than not the school certifying official is the only source of GI Bill information the veteran ever receives.

E. The VA has no structure for schools to refund of overpayments.

Some errors in the certification and processing of GI Bill claims are inevitable, and we must do everything we can to minimize those errors. However, to not have a contingency plan when they do occur is extremely irresponsible and has taken a profoundly negative toll on student veterans who have been affected. If a school has been overpaid there is no mechanism for the school to repay the VA directly. While the school starts the refund process to the student veteran, the VA will immediately put a hold on the student’s GI Bill benefits whether they were aware of the overpayment or not. Take the following case for example:

“My school was underpaid and sent the VA a bill for a little over $200. The VA thinks that is all they had to pay and sent me a letter saying I have to pay all the money back. I did not change classes or even drop any. I have tried to call them but the phone is busy; I emailed them but they said to call them in the reply. What am I supposed to do? School starts Fri… I just got the letter today and my school said I have to contact a rep myself. The appeal letter said it will be 3+ months for it to process. Please Help!!” – Mickel (IAVA Vet)

One month later:

I just withdrew from school because I did not have the money to drive there without the VA paying me. I had no choice. The school will try to send back every cent of the money they paid them.”

Four months later, with the help of the Atlanta Regional Office, we were finally able to get the VA creditors off Mickel’s back and get him the money he deserved; however, he had already dropped out of school and was even further behind his civilian counterparts.

Student veterans like Mickel deserve better.  In order to prevent this from happening in the future, the VA should develop a simple process for schools to refund overpayments directly to the VA and improve  communication between the Education Liaison Representatives (ELRs) and the school certifying officials.

IV. H.R. 5933: New GI Bill 2.0

H.R. 5933 will improve the new GI Bill and ensure that all student veterans have access to this generous education benefit. By simplifying and streamlining the administrative rules, H.R. 5933 would enable the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) to process GI Bill claims in a timely manner. H.R. 5933, which we have come to call the “New GI Bill 2.0,” is a comprehensive effort to address the concerns of tens of thousands of student veterans and their families by including:

  • Vocational Training: Offering valuable job training for students studying at vocational schools
  • Title 32 AGR: Granting National Guardsmen responding to national disasters full GI Bill credit
  • Distance Learners: Providing living allowances for veterans in distance learning programs
  • Tuition/Fees: Expanding and simplifying the Yellow Ribbon Program
  • Active Duty: Including a book stipend for active duty students

Even the original WWII GI Bill needed a tune up like H.R. 5933. One year after the passage of the WWII GI Bill the House Committee on World War Veterans Legislation (an early predecessor to this committee) conducted a marathon four day long hearing to review the effectiveness of this new benefit.
In a small touch of irony, veterans groups like the Legion, VFW, and DAV collectively asked the committee, as we are today, to upgrade the WWII GI Bill to include vocational schools, correspondence courses and to simplify the tuition benefit.

Congress promptly responded and passed H.R. 3749, “To Amend the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944.” These upgrades finished the work Congress had started and secured the WW II GI Bill as one of the greatest investments in the 20th century. It was actually the amended version of the WWII GI Bill that helped build America’s middle class and laid the foundation for what Tom Brokaw dubbed the “Greatest Generation.” IAVA believes that just like the WWII GI Bill, the Post-9/11 GI Bill needs the comprehensive improvements in H.R. 5933 to become the smartest investment in the 21st century and to help lay the foundation for the next greatest generation.

  1. Invaluable Professional Job Training

H.R. 5933 will help veterans access valuable job training by granting Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to veterans in vocational, apprenticeship and On-The-Job training (OJT) programs.  IAVA member Charles Conrad returned home from war to face a bleak economy. He had finished two tours, was released from his stop-loss orders and was ready to begin the next chapter of his young life. Charles moved to Pittsburgh and enrolled in the Pennsylvania Gunsmith School, a well-known vocational school founded in 1949. Charles, like countless other veterans, assumed that by combining his military experience with a vocational certificate, he would make himself marketable in today’s rough job scene.  Unfortunately, Charles was let down by the new GI Bill. Currently, the Post-9/11 GI Bill does not pay for trade schools -- and now Charles is left struggling to pay down piles of bills.

I was depending on the housing allowance and without it I can’t even afford the school… It’s a slap in the face to me that I can’t use the Post-9/11 GI Bill… It’s like saying a trade school isn’t good enough for the new GI Bill, but it is for the old GI Bill. Is there any way that trade schools will ever be allowed under the new GI Bill?

Most people don’t realize that a majority of WWII veterans used their GI Bill benefits to attend vocational schools. Although there are a limited number of vocational programs at the local community colleges currently authorized, allowing veterans to enroll in the vocational program of their choice would enable all of our war-fighters to use their hard-earned new GI Bill benefits.

  1. Full Credit for Full Time Served

H.R. 5933 will help National Guard servicemembers by granting full GI Bill credit for full-time service. New GI Bill 2.0 classifies state activations for national disasters (e.g., Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill) and full-time Title 32 Active Guard Reserve (AGR) service as qualifying service. This correction will help almost 30,000 Army National Guard and 13,500 Air National Guard servicemembers serving on Title 32 or “state” orders. This vital improvement will also ensure that the thousands of National Guard troops from Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi who are currently protecting our coastline from the oil spewing in the Gulf will receive credit towards their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit.

IAVA member Sergeant First Class (SFC) Bradford Mingle has been wearing our country’s uniform every day for the past 19 years, including during a recent tour in Afghanistan. SFC Mingle is part of the Active Guard and Reserve program (AGR), which means he works full-time for the National Guard. Imagine SFC Mingle’s surprise and anger when he applied for the New GI Bill, only to have the VA tell him he hadn’t served long enough to qualify for the full benefits.

I am an AGR soldier with 19 years active duty but I'm not qualified to get what an Active Army Soldier gets? Is our service not worth as much? Why are AGR Soldiers always left out?

According to the current law, only one of SFC Mingle’s 19 years of active duty service actually counted toward his GI Bill eligibility. Yet a full-time reservist doing the same job as SFC Mingle would qualify for the full GI Bill simply because his or her checks were paid for by the federal government, rather than the state government. Same uniform, same service -- vastly different benefits.

  1. Fairness for Disabled Veterans Utilizing Distance Learning

Many disabled veterans and single parents are attending online courses to achieve their dream of a college degree. But, under the current rules, even if they are taking a full course load, they do not qualify to receive the new GI Bill’s substantial monthly living allowance. If these veterans were able to take just one course at a local college, they would qualify for the full living allowance. Yet enrolling in a course at a brick-and-mortar institution is nearly impossible for a single mother simultaneously struggling to keep food on the table or for a disabled veteran who cannot navigate a flight of stairs without assistance.

IAVA member Specialist (SPC) Weaver was awarded a bronze star for his meritorious service during two tours in Iraq. He is currently at home recovering from the fractured spine he sustained after being ejected from a moving vehicle. SPC Weaver suffers from vertigo, hearing problems and loss of mobility. Despite his injuries, SPC Weaver still dreams of completing his education and has been looking to attend college online, where he can complete his degree at his own pace. In spite of his service, SPC Jeffrey Weaver cannot benefit from the New GI Bill in its current form.

This seems quite absurd as it is fact that many service-disabled veterans are undergoing treatments and have special needs. Although I am not totally disabled, because of my current conditions, it would be nearly impossible to collect on the Post-9/11 GI Bill entitlements. This seems to be an issue we need to raise to Congress.

A living allowance for students of online institutions would help veterans to avoid having to choose between keeping a roof over a family’s head and concentrating on being a successful student. The allowance would enable them to provide for their families while increasing their future earning potential through education. The New GI Bill was supposed to encourage student veterans to focus on their education and not their financial situation -- but without the New GI Bill 2.0 upgrade, student veterans pursuing degrees through distance learning are left out in the cold.

  1. Simplify the Yellow Ribbon Program

New GI Bill 2.0 simplifies the tuition benefit by abolishing the confusing state cap program and replacing it with a simple promise. Under the current form of the New GI Bill, the tuition benefits are confusing, and completely unpredictable. In California, tuition caps have been raised three times this year alone. Worse, nationwide tuition caps have fluctuated wildly since last year and states like Florida and Minnesota have seen their benefits drop for no apparent reason.

Recently, in front of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, the VA admitted to “delays in determining the 2009-2010 maximum tuition, and fee rates resulted in delayed processing of payments for students attending school in those states.” The VA later said that reforming the tuition and fees benefit was its top priority fix for the New GI Bill. Considering that the VA was late exactly a month publishing the new tuition/fees chart this year, we need a GI Bill benefit that is easy to calculate and is easily understood by those whose use the benefit as well as those who distribute it.

Under the proposed New GI Bill 2.0, if a student veteran attends a public school, the New GI Bill will pay for the entire cost of tuition and fees -- no questions asked. If a student veteran attends a private school, the VA will pay a nationally recognized, baseline amount. If a private school is more expensive than the national baseline, the school is encouraged to take part in the yellow ribbon program in order to eliminate the remaining gap in education costs.

IAVA member Lieutenant Colonel (LTC) Brian Pummill is in an extreme, remote location in Afghanistan. LTC Pummill should be focused solely on the mission at hand, but his thoughts are back at home as he tries to explain to his college-bound daughter how the New GI Bill’s tuition benefit will work.  Even after a long career successfully navigating military bureaucracy, LTC Pummill is thoroughly perplexed by the VA’s confusing tuition and fee caps.

I don’t understand how to calculate how much TUITION AND FEES the VA will pay Saint Mary’s College… I see calculations that just compute this by $321/credit hour, but this doesn’t come close to the MAXIMUM FEES BY TERM of $12,438.00 indicated for SMC. Since SMC’s TUITION AND FEES for 2010-2011 are the same for ALL FULL-TIME STUDENTS, REGARDLESS OF THE CREDIT HOURS THEY ARE TAKING, why wouldn’t we take the Maximum fees by term ($12,438), multiply that by 2 ($24,876), then divide by 9 months ($2,764/month), to calculate the per month value of the GI Bill at SMC, if that is the actual cost of Tuition and Fees to attend SMC. The same calculation by the credit hour, assuming you take 32 credit hours per year, is only $321.75 times 32, which is only: $10,296.00.  How does a student qualify to be reimbursed at the MAXIMUM TUITION AND FEES PER TERM, instead of by the credit hour---at SMC, the difference between these two calculations is staggering.

H.R. 5933 will simplify the benefit and help servicemembers like LTC Pummill get their mind back on the mission.

  1. Other Improvements to the New GI Bill

New GI Bill 2.0 is an essential comprehensive upgrade, involving changes large and small. These changes are vital to the academic success of student veterans pursuing a higher education. H.R. 5933 will also:

  • Grant active duty students a book stipend worth $1,000/year
  • Increase Vocational Rehabilitation monthly benefits by up to $780/month
  • Reimburse students who take multiple accreditation/certification tests
  • Allow enlistment kickers to be transferred to dependents
  • Increase school reporting fees
  • Simplify the types of discharges that qualify for benefits

VII: Conclusion

The Post-9/11 GI Bill, or “New GI Bill,” will be remembered as one of the greatest investments in our country’s veterans for generations to come if we act now and finish the work this committee began two years ago. History has shown us the importance of investing in our country’s veterans, and IAVA applauds the phenomenal work this committee continues to do on behalf of our nation’s veterans and their families.

IAVA is proud to speak on behalf of the thousands of veterans coming home every day. We work tirelessly so veterans know we have their back. Together, with this Congress and the Department of Veteran Affairs, we can guarantee that every veteran is confident that America has their back.

Thank you.