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Veterans experience delays in GI Bill payments

WASHINGTON—A surge in veterans using the GI Bill to pay for college is increasing delays for students in getting their money from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

For students attending colleges in the central United States, it's been taking nearly eight weeks on average for a first-time applicant to start receiving VA college funds. That's more than twice as long as it's supposed to take, according to the VA's standards.

"For some of these VA guys, that's all they live on when they're in school," said Rowdy Pyle, financial aid counselor at Ozarks Technical Community College in Springfield, Mo., where about 30 students have raised concerns about delays. "They're getting a little worried when they hear they may not get their check until sometime in March."

This week the VA began taking what it called "extraordinary measures" to reduce the backlog at its St. Louis claims-processing center, including diverting all incoming calls to an office in Oklahoma for two weeks to free up 20 employees to process claims. St. Louis is the slowest of the VA's four education claims-processing centers.

"The number of claims coming in has been at all-time record highs," a VA liaison officer for the St. Louis region said in a memo to college officials that Knight Ridder obtained. "We appreciate your patience. We understand you take a lot of the heat from students when claims processing is slower than expected."

VA education programs, which pay eligible veterans up to $1,034 a month while they're attending school, are a key inducement the military uses to entice recruits. More than 500,000 veterans and eligible dependents use VA education benefits.

Nationwide, more than 118,000 VA education claims were waiting to be processed as of Feb. 4. Students in 16 central states have been hit with the greatest delays because of an influx of incoming claims and backlogs at the St. Louis Regional Processing Center.

"St. Louis has had an unusually large number of claims coming in this year," said Bill Fillman, the central area director for the Veterans Benefits Administration. Incoming claims are up 18 percent in St. Louis, Fillman said. On average, incoming education claims are up 6 percent nationwide, the VA said.

Large numbers of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan to hometowns in the Midwest, coupled with larger education-benefits checks available to all veterans, are among the factors that Fillman suspects are increasing the workload in St. Louis.

First-time applicants for education funds waited 55.7 days on average if their paperwork was processed in St. Louis, and it took a little more than 27 days for the office to process claims from continuing students during the first four months of fiscal year 2006, which began Oct. 1. The VA's performance goals call for new claims to be processed in 25 days on average and renewal claims to be processed in 13 days.

The VA's St. Louis Regional Processing Center handles education claims from schools in Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Tennessee, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

The Atlanta Regional Processing Center, which handles claims from states in the Southeast, was the next slowest during that four-month period, taking 46 days on average for new claims and 25.5 days for renewals. Nationwide, the average processing time was 39 days for new claims and 22 days for renewal claims, according to the VA.

Fillman said the VA hoped to process another 10,000 to 20,000 education claims in St. Louis during the next two weeks because of the shifted phone calls. "We really think this is going to have a very, very positive impact on the St. Louis workload, and that will enable us to get them where they should be," he said.

Another reason for the backlogs is a new VA education benefit that targets activated members of the reserves and National Guard. Called the Reserve Educational Assistance Program, or Chapter 1607, this program rewards those activated since Sept. 11, 2001, with education payments of up to $827 a month.

As of Jan. 17, the most recent data available, the VA had processed only 407 of the 11,085 applications it had received for Chapter 1607 benefits. Of those processed, only 187 veterans had received payments. Of the others, 125 were told they were eligible but that their applications were missing information, and 88 were told they weren't eligible for the benefit. The VA didn't say what happened to the remaining seven. The VA began processing claims for the new benefit in December, more than a year after Congress created it.

Adding another layer of complexity is that Guardsmen and reservists who've received education payments under older and less lucrative VA programs are eligible to receive the higher pay rates of the new Chapter 1607 program retroactive to 2001. VA officials said they thought that almost all claims that had been filed so far for retroactive lump-sum payments had been processed.

But Gabriel Medina, a Marine Corps reservist who's studying at the University of California-Riverside, is among those who still are waiting for the VA to send what he estimates is thousands of dollars in retroactive education payments.

Medina has been receiving about $297 a month through the older Montgomery GI Bill-Selected Reserve program, also called Chapter 1606. He should be receiving more than double that under the new Chapter 1607 program, which is supposed to reward his activation for the war in Iraq. Medina spent nearly two years on active duty beginning in January 2002, including a tour in Iraq as a machine gunner.

"When I heard they were processing them I got all excited. But it's been a month and I haven't received anything," said Medina, who's 23. "I don't know of anyone who has."

For more information about Veterans Affairs education benefits, contact your school's veterans' benefits coordinator or call the VA at 1-800-827-1000. Information and applications are available on the Web at www.gibill.va.gov.

To be heard about VA education-benefits issues, contact the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs at 202-225-3527 or the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs at 202-224-9126.

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