WASHINGTON — Veterans trying to get an education under the new GI bill face delayed checks, erroneous payments and uncertainty about what their actual benefits are, officials told a congressional committee Wednesday.
Testifying before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Department of Veterans Affairs officials acknowledged problems that have characterized the initial eight months of the overhaul of the original Montgomery GI Bill. Glitches were expected in the beginning, but they need to be fixed, officials said.
"A fellow veteran ate canned beans and sardines three meals a day for an entire semester trying to scrape up gas money for his wife and children back home" because he didn't know when his next GI bill check would arrive, said Marco Reininger, a veteran now enrolled at Columbia University in New York.
Called the "most sweeping change in post-service education benefits since World War II" by Robert Clark, an assistant director for personnel and readiness at the Defense Department, the Post 9/11 GI Bill has added incentives to recruit and retain troops. Among them, certain service members can transfer their educational benefits to a spouse or child.
The newest iteration of the bill reflects the reality that U.S. forces are volunteers, unlike the conscripted forces of World War II, Clark said.
As it began implementing the bill last fall, the VA provided $355.5 million in advance payments to veterans who hadn't yet received their education funds, said Keith Wilson, director of the VA's education service. Additionally, officials estimated 6,000 veterans had too much money withdrawn from their accounts to repay these advances starting April 1.
The payments have put many veterans in overpayment status, a practice that's unacceptable, said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont.
"We do not want to continue advance payments," Wilson said.
Tester also called for improved communication about the program.
"There's uncertainty among veterans about payments, and people are confused about their options," said Reininger, the veteran at Columbia. He added that schools' financial aid offices don't understand the bill's benefits.
The complexity of the new bill has been a technical challenge, Wilson said.
Members of the armed services are automatically enrolled in the Montgomery GI Bill and must take an extra step to opt into the benefits of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, which took effect on Aug. 1. As a result, nearly all veterans are still enrolled in the Montgomery GI Bill.
In addition to problems in the new program, veterans groups are upset that on-the-job training and apprenticeships have been left out of the benefits.
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)
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