September 26, 2008 – Lawmakers angrily criticized Veterans Affairs officials Wednesday for possible delays in implementing the new GI Bill benefits by the August 2009 deadline, calling for more urgency and ingenuity by department leaders.
Keith Pedigo, assistant deputy undersecretary for veterans benefits administration, told members of the House that the VA does not have the technical expertise or manpower to handle the transition from the old education benefits system to a larger, more complex formula.
As a result, the department expects to contract out the work. But he said the 11-month window left to get that work done will create challenges for the program.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Bob Filner, D-Calif., charged that officials aren’t working hard enough to find solutions.
“I could find a geek to do this stuff for $1 million,” he said.
“We’ve got kids all over the country that could do this work. Maybe it’s a little more complicated than your normal computer work … but it’s not that conceptually difficult.”
The new GI Bill benefits, passed by Congress in June, mandate a $1,000 monthly housing stipend and four years of tuition at any state university for all veterans who served at least three years on active duty since Sept. 11, 2001.
Under the old system, veterans received a flat rate for their education based on their contributions into the system. Veterans Affairs officials said the new system will be much more complicated, calculating different rates for every recipient based on how long they served, what school they attend and where they live.
“The difference between the concept and getting it so payments arrive on time is huge,” said Stephen Warren, principal deputy assistant secretary for the Department’s information and technology office.
“It’s extremely complicated.”
Representatives on the committee raised concerns about contracting out the work to a private company, asking what safeguards and contingency plans are in place if the new system is not ready in time.
Meanwhile, Defense Department officials said they’re confident the computer systems designed to share personnel records with Veterans Affairs will be ready by March of next year.
“Right now it’s just a question of format. We don’t know how the contractor or the VA is going to want the data,” said Curtis Gilroy, director of accession policy for the DOD personnel office.
“Once that is determined, it will not be difficult.”
Veterans groups told lawmakers they want assurances that if a contractor takes over the check-issuing responsibilities, Veterans Affairs officials will still be the final arbiters for questions surrounding benefits.
But most importantly, they want the system to be ready by the fall semester next year.
Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said he worries that thousands of veterans could enroll for classes next summer only to discover a few months later their government-promised reimbursement isn’t coming.
“I don’t care how they do it,” he said. “Veterans must get these benefits on time.”