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VA to repay possibly short-changed veterans for GI Bill benefits

| Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, 11:06 p.m.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Arlington, Va.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie places a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier during a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery on Veterans Day, Sunday, Nov. 11, 2018, in Arlington, Va.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie overruled a top benefits official Thursday and said the VA won’t ignore federal law and will now reimburse veterans who may have been underpaid GI Bill benefits.

The move came just hours after Paul Lawrence, the VA’s undersecretary for benefits, testified on Capitol Hill that the amount of work it would take to figure out how many were shortchanged and by how much wouldn’t be worth it.

The VA was supposed to begin granting expanded benefits in August under a law passed last year known as the Forever GI Bill. The law required the VA to change the way it calculated housing stipends, among other changes.

But the agency blew through that deadline because it couldn’t get software in place to make the calculations and said this week it wouldn’t be up and running for another year.

In the meantime, Lawrence told lawmakers that veterans are being paid the old way while the VA focuses on getting it right by next December, when veterans will be planning for the following school semester.

“If you ask me, what should we spend an extra hour on –processing things that yield veterans nothing, putting at risk the spring 2020 semester, or saying, this doesn’t yield much and we’re going to move forward?” he said at a House VA Committee hearing.

Committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., questioned Lawrence repeatedly on the issue after Lawrence at first kept repeating agency talking points that veterans will be “made whole” without acknowledging that it won’t be at the new rates under the law.

“Just for clarity, we stood up a system that didn’t work, and paid people what we had paid them in the past,” Roe said. “And we don’t know what we should have paid them. Am I correct? That’s pretty much what we did, because our IT system didn’t work, that’s what happened?”

A bipartisan group of senators and one member of the House sent a letter demanding the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general investigate continuing issues in paying student veterans the benefits they are owed under the Forever GI Bill.

Sens. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, and John Boozman, R-Ark., along with five Democratic and three Republican senators and one Democratic congressman, signed the letter requesting the inspector general look into allegations that VA did not intend to reimburse veterans “for missed or underpaid benefits” related to the Forever GI Bill. Schatz is the top Democrat and Boozman is the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on veterans affairs.

The reversal came amid criticism from lawmakers and veterans’ groups and a confusing messaging strategy from the agency. Even as Lawrence testified, the VA issued a statement saying veterans would be “made whole” only at the current rates.

And VA spokesman Curt Cashour earlier Thursday had tried to dispute reports that veterans who were underpaid would not be fully reimbursed. NBC News had reported that VA officials told congressional staff the VA would not be able to repay underpaid veterans without an audit of some 2 million past claims, which could hold up processing of future claims.

Cashour asserted the report was misleading and “gives the false impression” that some veterans will not be paid back in full.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said in a statement. “Each and every Veteran on the post-9/11 GI Bill will be made 100 percent whole – retroactively if need be – for their housing benefits for this academic year.”

But, he noted at the time, that it would be based on current rates.

At Thursday’s hearing, Lawrence said the agency didn’t know if that would have resulted in underpaying veterans.

“Nobody has yet been paid under this system that doesn’t exist,” he said. “There isn’t a feeling of ‘I’m owed something,’ unless they’re able to calculate something we’ve been quite frankly unable to calculate.”

The technology glitches have not been limited to the housing stipend calculations. GI Bill payments to thousands of veterans across the country were delayed this fall because of the computer problems. Many reported they were forced into desperate financial situations.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., led 24 Democratic members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in sending a letter on Friday to Wilkie demanding that he be very clear whether the federal agency plans to make up the difference to those student veterans who may have been underpaid their housing allowances. Takano is expected to chair the committee when the Democrats take control of the chamber next year.

The letter notes numerous times when VA statements have been inconsistent and led to confusion over whether students who were shortchanged would be repaid under the Forever GI Bill once the law came into full effect on Dec. 1, 2019.

“This level of obfuscation from VA is unacceptable,” the lawmakers wrote. “Student veterans were made a promise when we passed the Forever GI Bill and VA is legally obligated to follow through on that promise.”

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