WASHINGTON—Nearly three months into the spring semester, Army veteran Melishsa Fairman can't afford some textbooks because the Department of Veterans Affairs hasn't come through with her education benefits.
"I'm making it, barely. But I'm making it," said Fairman, 28, who's studying business at Tallahassee Community College.
About 100 of the 475 students who attend the Florida college with help from the Montgomery GI Bill and other VA education programs are still waiting on payments even though they applied for the benefits in December, said Delorise Robinson, the college's veterans affairs specialist.
Nationwide, more than 35,000 students have waited more than 60 days for the VA to approve their education claims in recent months, prompting colleges to defer tuition payments and offer emergency loans to students waiting on checks.
Nearly 100,000 other veterans have experienced delays of one to two months, according to a Knight Ridder analysis of VA claims data for Oct. 1-Feb. 28.
The agency's goal is to process first-time education claims in 25 days and claims from continuing students in 13 days. About half of 88,000 first-time applicants and 80 percent of 460,000 continuing students had their claims processed in a month or less, the data for that period show.
Jack McCoy, director of the VA education service, said an influx of veterans going to school with the VA's help, too few claims processors and a computer glitch last fall that kept 67,000 claims from being processed automatically are among the reasons for the spring backlog.
To cope, the VA hired additional workers at its four regional education claims processing centers and has authorized them to work on Saturdays. Some centers turn off their phone lines and temporarily divert calls to other regional offices so they can use phone staff to handle claims.
McCoy said he urges school officials to let the VA know about long-overdue claims.
"If you have someone you've sent an enrollment certification in on and ... it's been a really long time, please call and tell us," McCoy said. "We're going to fix those cases."
VA education programs pay eligible veterans up to $1,004 a month while they're attending school and are a key inducement used by military recruiters. More than 500,000 veterans and eligible dependents will use VA education benefits this year.
While claims backlogs are common, particularly during peak enrollment periods, several college officials said the delays this spring were worse than usual.
"I had 10 brand-new veterans apply this last semester and I haven't had any of them get any of their money yet. They're into the third month of the semester and they're like: `What do I do?'" said Charlene Lance, who handles VA certifications at the University of Akron's Wayne College in Ohio.
"We have about 200 students who have experienced lengthy delays in getting their checks," said Christian Basi, spokesman for the University of Missouri-Columbia. Seven of those veterans were so cash-strapped that they sought emergency loans from the school's financial aid department, Basi said.
Army veteran Dave Wilson, who served in Bosnia, said he was subsisting on ramen noodles until his first VA check of the semester arrived last week.
"It was getting pretty close. My utility bill was three weeks past due; my cell phone was three weeks past due," said Wilson, 25, who's been a student at Red Rocks Community College in Lakewood, Colo., since August 2004. "I was trying to balance when to write checks and when to put them in the mail, who to pay and who to let roll another week."
After calling the VA's St. Louis regional processing office, the VA inspector general and then getting help from a staffer in Sen. Ken Salazar's office, Wilson said the VA direct-deposited his accrued education benefits of $1,974.53 on March 14.
About 74,000 veterans' education claims awaited processing by the VA as of March 19, more than double the number this time last year, agency records show.
The backlog spiked to more than 115,000 last month, prompting the St. Louis office to warn Midwest schools that it was taking eight to 10 weeks to process claims submitted electronically—and three weeks longer for those submitted on paper.
"As many of you are well aware the St. Louis Regional Processing Office (RPO) has a large backlog of pending education claims," the office said in a Feb. 9 memo. "This has caused frustration for all of us. ..."
Students in the upper Midwest, whose claims are processed by the VA's St. Louis office, and students in the Southeast, whose claims are processed in Atlanta, have experienced some of the biggest delays, according to VA data, memos and interviews with VA and college officials.
The VA office in Muskogee, Okla., which handles schools in the Southwest, and the one in Buffalo, N.Y., which handles Northeast schools, have had fewer problems, they said.
VA officials in Washington said Thursday that Fairman should get about $1,500 in past-due education payments by the start of this week.
Tallahassee Community College transmitted her claim electronically on Jan. 6 to the VA's Atlanta office, which handles Florida colleges. But her claim became tangled in the backlogs and bureaucracy as the Atlanta office sought some of Fairman's records from the St. Louis office. During the fall semester, Fairman attended a university in Indiana, whose records are handled by the VA office in St. Louis.
"You can't really concentrate on school because you're worrying about how you're going to make it," Fairman said. "I have family that helps me, but they're getting about tired of me."
(To determine what VA regional office handles education claims for your state, go to: www.vba.va.gov/ro/stlouis/rpomapinter.htm)