Post-9/11 GI Bill Deadline Looming

In less then 200 days, the new Post 9/11 GI Bill will start helping veterans, spouses and dependents realize their dream of a college education. IAVA worked tirelessly to pass the new GI Bill last summer, and since then we’ve kept up the fight to ensure that this historic program will successfully launch on August 1st, 2009. IAVA is grateful that the VA and its new Secretary, retired Army General Eric Shinseki have made implementing the new GI Bill one of their top priorities.

All in all, the VA is poised to implement the new GI Bill on August 1st. But there have been several recent developments with the implementation of the new GI Bill that are worth the attention of anyone planning to use the new GI Bill, or anyone who cares that veterans get the education benefits they have earned.

  • VA postpones automating GI Bill Processing
  • VA proposes key explanatory regulations
  • DoD hints at rules for transferring benefits
  • Yellow Ribbon Program unveiled
  • Congress poised to consider technical corrections

VA Postpones Automating GI Bill Processing

The tuition payments, living allowances and book stipends under the new Post 9/11 GI Bill are a dramatic departure from the old Montgomery GI Bill’s once-a-month payment scheme. There are over 315,000 possible combinations of benefits available under the new GI Bill, versus less then 10 with the old GI Bill. The VA only had one year to completely modernize their GI Bill claims processing to accommodate these new changes. Originally the VA considered contracting out their modernization, but they were unable to secure an IT vendor who could confidently deliver a whole new system by the August 1st deadline.

So in the short term, the VA has returned to the basics, “stubby pencils and paper,” and will be hand-processing each and every check for veterans until their new automated system comes online. The VA is hiring over 400 temporary GI Bill claims processors to help accommodate the 525,000 GI Bill claims they anticipate in 2009. They are also spending at least $7 million dollars beefing up their outdated claims system to ensure it will not crash under the weight of this new program.

In the long term, the VA has contracted SPAWAR (Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command) to run point on their modernization plan. SPAWAR is coordinating with the VA, DoD and outside contractors to automate the GI Bill claims process. Their goal is to develop a model claims process that is simple and intuitive for veterans, reduces claims processing times and minimizes VA bureaucratic involvement. Expert opinions have varied on whether contracting with SPAWAR will improve or harm the long term automation process. One can only hope that the nearly $50 million budgeted for this contract will be put to good use.

VA proposes key explanatory regulations

In December, the VA published their draft regulations which outline how the VA intends to manage the new GI Bill. These proposed regulations answered many lingering questions left by the text of the original legislation. For example, the regulations explain how a school signs up for the Yellow Ribbon tuition matchinig program, whether a veteran is entitled to a living allowances if they are attending school part time or attending classes partially online, and what benefits are overseas veterans entitled to. Please see our updated FAQ’s for how these regulations affect your GI Bill benefits.

The VA also hosted a number of roundtables with schools and colleges around the country, to help explain the new GI Bill and solicit feedback on their proposed regulations. On behalf of IAVA, I attended two of those sessions and spent an entire month reviewing each and every line of those proposed regulations. We were one of a few organizations who offered formal public comment.

I’m happy to say that the VA’s regulations were very thorough and veteran-centric, but there are some causes for concern:

  • the new GI Bill may not cover mandatory health fees,
  • Enlistment Kickers (monthly bonuses) will be denied to dependents, distance learners and part-time students
  • rules regarding the Yellow Ribbon program are too restrictive; and
  • older dependents may be denied transferred benefits.

We made our recommendations to the VA to correct these issues before final regulations are released. Once we have the final regulations from the VA, we will incorporate any changes into the GIBill2008 FAQs.

DoD hints at rules for transferring benefits

The GI Bill will affect both veterans and current servicemembers, so responsibility for its regulations falls to both the VA and the DOD. It is the DOD’s responsibility to outline the process by which a servicemember will be able to transfer their education benefits to a spouse and/or dependent.

The VA has acted quickly to get the new GI Bill up and running, but the Department of Defense has yet to formally issue their regulations on transferability. The legislation gave the Department of Defense a lot of wiggle room in terms of limiting or expanding the transferability benefit, so the details of the regulations will be very significant for military families. IAVA has been in constant contact with the drafters of these regulations and, based on initial reports, we are pleased that DoD will be fully implementing transferability for all services (Active and Reserve) and all branches. Also, DoD is signaling that they will be allowing retirement-eligible servicemembers to transfer benefits without requiring an additional service commitment. This will be especially significant for career military service-members – ADD EXAMPLE OF GUY WITH 20 YEARS IN.

Please see our updated FAQ’s for the latest changes to transferability. These are encouraging reports and we concur with initial VA? DOD? CBO? estimates that as many as 100,000 dependents and spouses may utilize this program.

Yellow Ribbon Program unveiled

The VA has been releasing more details on how schools and universities can participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program. Universities whose tuition is above the state cap can help make their schools affordable to veterans by participating in the Yellow Ribbon GI Bill Program. The school must enter into an agreement with the VA to participate, and then the federal government will match dollar-for-dollar any tuition waiver a school gives to a GI Bill-eligible veteran, up to the full cost of tuition. To see more about the Yellow Ribbon program, click here. To see a copy of the letter the VA mailed out to University presidents, click here.

Congress poised to consider technical corrections

With the GI Bill deadline looming, Congress is poised to introduce a technical corrections bill to the Post 9/11 GI Bill that would fix a number of issues that could not be addressed with regulations. IAVA is vigorously advocating that any technical fix bill address large populations of veterans who were not included in the new Post 9/11 GI Bill. Under current law,

  • About 43,500 Active Guard Reservists’ (AGR) will not receive GI Bill benefits for their active service
  • About 16,800 vocational students will be denied any Post-9/11 benefits
  • At least 50,000 distance learners will be denied a living stipend
  • About 34,00-105,000 part time students will be denied a living stipend

The genius of the original WWII GI Bill was that it empowered veterans by sending them to any college/school/training they were interested in pursuing. Veterans choose how they wanted to fulfill their dreams. They could become doctors, lawyers, police officers, teachers, barbers and even high school graduates. While the number of vocational students using the GI Bill has dropped dramatically since WW II (from 70% to 9%), we mustn’t let unrealistic and romantic views of traditional college education prevent tens of thousands non traditional students from achieving their dreams with the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

We are advocating that the new GI Bill be amended to:

  • Count Active Guard Reserve (AGR) service toward Post 9/11 service
  • Grant Post 9/11 benefits for vocational programs
  • Provide a living Stipend for distance learners
  • Offer prorated living allowance for students attending half time or less
  • Set national tuition cap to $13,000, the price of the most expensive public school

There is still time to make these changes and successfully implement them before the August 1st deadline. In many cases, these changes will actually streamline and simplify the Post 9/11 GI Bill for veterans and VA administrators.

IAVA looks forward to engaging on these critical issues. We welcome your comments and feedback as we begin this dialogue.