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GI Bill delays affect Clark College veterans

Columbian - 12/9/2018

Dec. 09--The Federal Department of Veterans Affairs is backtracking on a new policy that caused a technology glitch and delayed payments to thousands of veterans enrolled under the GI Bill.

Postponing the new policy until December 2019 should alleviate the issue in the short term, including at Clark College, where a large number of students are veterans receiving GI Bill benefits.

Clark College currently enrolls around 380 veteran students, according to Cary Bare and Mike Gibson, the GI Bill school certifying official for the school. Many students, especially new ones who enrolled for the fall term, were affected by the switch and faced delays in their monthly checks. A handful have still yet to be paid.

"Even with a couple of weeks late, let alone a month or two late, that really makes it difficult for these students," Gibson said, sitting with Bare in his office in late November. "We didn't expect being two months late on pay."

A national problem

Student veterans dependent on GI Bill benefits have borne the brunt of the IT glitch at the federal VA office. A November report from NBC News indicated that around 82,000 veterans across the country hadn't seen a benefits check since the VA attempted to adjust its database over the summer.

The VA disputes these figures, claiming last week that fewer than 10,000 education claims had been pending approval for more than a month and just 666 had been pending for more than two months. In the same statement, the VA categorically claimed that no veteran in the country had been made homeless by the issue.

This doesn't match what Gibson and Bare have seen over the last few months. They were unsure exactly how many new enrollees still hadn't been paid, but they estimated that around two-thirds of those veteran students had been waiting on checks as late as October.

"Considering the number of calls and emails I was getting, it was like nobody had gotten paid," Bare said. "Do you want to eat, or do you want a roof over your head?"

In 2017, Congress passed the Forever GI Bill, the most comprehensive overhaul to the veterans housing and education assistance program since 9/11.

"As part of the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017, also known as the "Forever GI Bill (FGIB)," Section 107 of the law requires VA to calculate monthly housing payments based on the location of the campus where a student attends the majority of their classes," an April press release on the federal VA website stated. "Students can expect to see changes in their monthly housing allowance after Aug. 1, 2018."

The change was an effort to more closely align monthly allowances with expenses, Bare said. By using the ZIP code of the campus to determine the size of the student's check, the VA was less likely to overpay -- the cost of living in Longview, she pointed out, is much lower than the cost of living in Portland, even if they're not too far apart.

"So that's what this change is about, is making sure people are getting paid what it cost to live in their city and not getting overpaid," Bare said.

Stepping back

It was reasonable in theory but disastrous in practice, according to Bare and Gibson.

The glitch started affecting GI Bill recipients over the summer, when many were enrolling for fall classes. At Clark, the stipend for a full-time student is $2,193, though a scheduled cost of living increase will soon set that figure at $2,294. Gibson said there are approximately 65 veterans' dependents also enrolled at Clark -- they receive around half of that.

To accommodate students dealing with a delay in benefits, the college put an extended hold on tuition payments for veterans.

"This is way past the time that the business office is comfortable with it, but they've been good about not dropping our students," Bare said.

Last week, the Veterans Benefits Administration announced that it would be postponing the changes in the GI Bill until December 2019, in preparation for the spring 2020 enrollment term. The new timeline should coincide with a quieter college enrollment period.

"Redesigning the way VBA calculates post 9/11 GI Bill housing rates during a busy academic season was like flying a plane while building it," VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in the announcement.

Gibson said the VA should be back to its normal routine of processing and paying GI Bill benefits. Temporarily reverting back to the old enrollment should help alleviate the delays.

But as Bare put it, "the wheels will turn at their pace." And that pace is slower than rent payments, or grocery bills, or the time it takes to empty a tank of gas.

"We get to know these students. We care about them. We want to know if they're going to lose their apartment, or if they're going to be living in their car, or under a piece of cardboard," Bare said. "They're not just names, not just statistics. These are people trying to live and work and have families and go to school. ...You start taking that financial stability away from them, and they're not going to have a good quarter."

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