Winning the fight to pass the Post 9/11 GI Bill was a huge legislative victory for IAVA and veterans as a whole. Many inside and outside the system doubted that it would happen, but a cadre of dedicated individuals from IAVA, VFW, Student Veterans and The Military Coalition kept hammering away at congress to ensure that America keeps its promise to veterans.
On the night that it passed the Senate with little threat of a veto, a friend from the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee turned to us and said "Congratulations, now comes the hard part". We all knew what she was talking about, but we were a bit too caught up in the moment to let it bum us out. As with any huge piece of legislation there were several loopholes, clarifications, and technical corrections that needed to be fixed However, the biggest X factor was how the VA would administer the new program to the estimated 520,000 veterans that were expected to begin using the GI Bill on August 1, 2009.
It was clear that the VA knew how to administer education benefits. The dedicated experts at the VA have been doing this in one form or another for 60 years. However, in a 21st century world, and with the system in dire need of an upgrade, it was unclear how the VA would handle the task. The system being used to administer the Montgomery GI Bill was developed in the 1960's and is currently pushed to the limits. The VA was planning on a technology upgrade in 2013, but it wasn't coming fast enough for the new GI Bill.
Earlier in the process, the VA told the VSOs that in order to make the upgrade within the 18 month timeframe; they would have to contract the development of the IT out. This was not a shock. Anyone who has spent more than 30 seconds on www.va.gov knows that the VA can't design a website to save its life. We were cautiously dubious. We told them that we would not object, as long as VA employees would not lose their jobs, and that any time a benefits decision were made and veterans needed to talk to a rep, that it would be done by a qualified VA administrator. This was agreed to all around and the VA sent out a contract request with those parameters.
The process was met with some resistance and concern from VSOs and members of Congress. House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner (D-CA 51) raised concerns that the contracting process had little oversight and accountability. He was concerned about the contract primarily because he felt that VA employees are better equipped to handle the delivery of education benefits delivery as a result of their familiarity with Department of Defense documents and databases.
In August, the House Veterans Affairs Economic Opportunity Sub-Committee began to hold hearings to make sure that the process was going to occur on time, and would not have a negative impact on veterans. On October 23rd, the VA announced that due to not receiving adequate contract bids, the VA would indeed handle the upgrade "in house". As it stands now, the VA will hire 400 new benefits administrators to ensure that the GI Bill will be ready on time. It has tapped the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) to develop a permanent rules-based automated system that is expected to go online in late 2010.
On November 18, 2008 the VA testified before the committee on their plan for the short and long term implementation of the GI Bill. Keith Wilson, Director; Office of Education Service outlined how the VA will ensure that veterans receive their benefits on time, and how the process will move in to the future. You can read his testimony here.
While I continue to be skeptical that the plan presented will go as smoothly as he stated, I was encouraged by the detail that Mr. Wilson presented to the committee. I think that the most important thing to take away from this is that the GI Bill will be on time. It might not be perfect, but it will happen. IAVA will continue to closely monitor the progress as the VA had included us other VSOs in the development and implementation of the benefit that we worked so hard to deliver.
Until then, keep checking www.newgibill.org for the latest information and developments.