May 4, VCS in the News: Veterans Face Computer Delays for new GI Bill Education Benefits

NextGov

May 1, 2009 – Veterans nationwide, trying for the first time on Friday to log on to online forms to apply for a rich package of educational benefits, encountered a network that either failed or was extremely slow.

The Veterans Affairs Department launched the Veterans Online Application (Vonapp) site to begin taking applications from veterans interested in the benefits offered in the new GI Bill, whose formal title is the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act.

The GI bill provides veterans with more generous educational benefits than the previous GI bill, originally passed in 1944. For example, this version hikes payments for tuition from $1,300 a month to a payment that is pegged at the highest tuition at a public university in a veteran’s state of residence, which for Massachusetts would be $10,232. The bill includes monthly living expenses of $1,100 to $1,200.

But veterans became frustrated when they tried to log onto the site. Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, said it took more than four minutes to reach Vonapp’s login screen using his computer in Austin, Texas, which has a high-speed cable modem.

“Veterans should not be viewing the hour glass of death” as they try to file for benefits, he said. “The VA needs to fix this now.”

Joe Mancinik, a Navy veteran who attends The George Washington University in Washington, said his attempts to access the site took more than a minute. Once on the site, however, the system timed out.

When Larry Scott, who runs the VA watch dog group Watchdog.org in Vancouver, Wash., tried to log on for the first time, he received a message from Vonapp that read: “Connection Interrupted. The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading. The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.”

Scott, who accesses the Internet over a 24-megabyte-per-second cable connection, said he was successful signing into the site on his second attempt, but “the connection was slow beyond belief.”

“It appears the VA did not adequately prepare their servers to handle what they knew to be a huge load,” he said. “They had to know this was coming.”

Others who were able to log on to the system also found the site slow. Dean Lee, assistant adjutant for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Department of California, said communications with the site dragged over his T-1 connection, which receives data at 1.5 megabytes per second.

Nextgov attempted to connect to Vonapp three times over a 100 megabyte-per-second Internet circuit from its offices in Washington and once received a time-out message, with the other two attempts taking minutes to complete.

At a Nextgov remote office in Las Vegas, N.M., only one connection out of 10 attempts worked, and that was shortly after midnight EDT, when registration for the new GI bill benefits first opened.

All attempts to reach the Vonapp login page after 11 a.m. EDT from New Mexico either resulted in a time out or an inability to get beyond the first two or three screens that lead into the login page.

Sullivan said 1 million veterans are eligible for post-911 educational benefits and VA should have anticipated a heavy load on the first filing day.

VA should have tested if the system could handle a heavy load, said Bob Charette, president the risk analysis firm Itabhi Corp. in Spotsylvania, Va. “This could just be a first-day problem, unless its continues over the weekend,” he said.

The department has until Aug. 1 to receive and process the claims, and VA made a smart decision to start the application process three months before it had to make payments, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington.

He said he had no problems accessing Vonapp from his office, adding he was “not a techie, but I would imagine most systems would have difficulties handling potentially hundreds of thousands of accesses at the same time.”

VA did not respond to a query on the amount of traffic the site experienced on Friday and what it could have done to resolve connection problems.

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