Saturday, September 26, 2009

VA Bloggers Round Table On Post 9/11 GI Bill

First, I'd like to say that I really appreciate the efforts of Brandon Friedman, Director of New Media over at the VA, for getting the VA to acknowledge the ways that people receive media, and that so often it is via the internet rather than print newspapers. There was a really excellent Blogger's Roundtable for military veteran bloggers and representatives of veterans service organizations via the phone, Assistant Secretary Tammy Duckworth and VA Deputy Director of Education Services Lynn Nelson taking the time to discuss the delay in GI bill payments with veteran bloggers and answer their questions. I really appreciate this-I think it's much more likely that the information in its unabridged form will make it to veterans than when it hits a newspaper and has to conform to space restrictions. I especially appreciate it as Duckworth was traveling on behalf of the VA and still made time for us and our concerns.

Veteran's benefits is a big piece for me, it's the IVAW mission that I think I do probably the most work on, because it's one of the most important: making sure our returning veterans are taken care of fully. So getting the chance to participate in this and help our members and other veterans and get answers was very important.

I think one of the most valuable things that came out of this was a little more clarification on where the problems are. Secretary Duckworth said that while 277,403 veterans have submitted for eligibility determination, (and that they've processed 205,704 of those) they cannot send checks to those people. They have to wait for the schools to send enrollment certifications, and a lot of the schools are apparently waiting until the ad-drop period to do this. They have received 27,735 enrollment certifications, and of those, they've processed and sent out 24,186.

So this is where (by my math) 71,699 students were as of Thursday. Much as I am quick to blame the VA usually, to be fair, this means the bulk of the problem is quite possibly indeed in the schools and with communication. Using the numbers Secretary Duckworth gave, that's (my math) 249,668 veterans whose schools have not sent enrollment certifications, and (my math) 177,969 veterans who have gone as far as they can in the VA system without the enrollment certification and are now waiting on the schools. Granted, it's hard to tell how many of those are actually trying to go to school this fall. Some may have simply wanted to create eligibility for later. But that is overwhelmingly the largest number of screwed veterans in this situation, and it seems to be coming from bad communication and the schools.

Some possibilities I'm thinking:
schools are, as Duckworth says, not sending until after ad-drop period
schools and students are not aware that they in fact do need to send it for payment to start
schools are not aware where specifically to direct it to

They do seem to be working on this: spring survival guides were mentioned to improve the communication issue and apparently more reaching out to the schools is going on to ask them to cut their veteran students a little slack.

Duckworth also assured us that Shinseki is really aware of this and receiving daily reports.

Terry Howell
, from asked a really important clarification question: whether or not certifying officials at the schools need to wait for that eligibility determination to certify that the veterans were taking classes at their schools. This is really important, and I'm glad he asked that. What Ms. Nelson told our fellow vets is that they do not. So what this means for you, is that as /soon/ as you are in the school system as attending for that term, you can start bugging the bursar/registrar to get them to send the information to the VA, /even/ if you're still waiting for your eligibility letter. This means you can do them simultaneously, and cut down your wait time massively. Some colleges, especially those dealing with Yellow Ribbon Programs, will need the eligibility letter, but if the GI bill covers your whole tuition, do it now. Tomorrow, in fact. If you are enrolled in school and are still waiting, you should go to your school tomorrow and ask what the status of the certification of enrollment is.

The mention again was made: they pay you housing after the fact, rather than before. I think this is a really lousy way to go, personally: rent is due before you start living there, not the month after. I understand that the VA is most likely trying to protect itself from fraudulent claims, but we are talking about veterans who served honorably. Could we not assume as a default that these guys are more likely to be honest, and take it back afterwards if it's found out they didn't deserve it? VA did accept fault, however, on the call, for failing to communicate to students that this would be happening, for which I applaud them.

What I also took from this call is that VA is working around the clock in order to get this done-VA employees working massive overtime on weekends, etc. They may not have anticipated the full demand, but they're doing a lot now.

Also, I know a lot of you guys have been talking about how when you call in, the VA has no clue where your stuff is at. I did ask about this, about what sort of tracking system they have and why everyone is getting such bad information. This is because, according to Secretary Duckworth and Ms. Nelson, the status of your claim is not visible until the authorization has been signed and the payment has gone out. Before then, they are not able to track at all where your claim is at. That is apparently not going to change for a while, but for next year, they'll have improvements-they estimate December of 2010 for a fully automated system that will fix a lot of these problems (as well as potentially have your results in an amazing ten days)

More confirmation for those of you who were a little unsure: they reaffirmed that if you completely use your MGIB, all 36 months, that you're still eligible for 12 months of the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

One thing the VA is doing well: they pointed out that if they owe you money, if you're owed back pay by the time the VA processes the claim, you will get it right away, you don't have to wait until the first. The payment will go out the day it's finished being processed.

Richard Smith of VoteVets made a really important point I think that applies for all of us pressing the VA on this. He mentioned some details of his own situation, and they offered him a personal followup. However, he pointed out that it wasn't for himself that he was asking, but for the other veterans. A solution that helped only him would not be a solution in his eyes. We're not out for ourselves. We're out for our brothers.

By the time of this writing, there has in fact been action on the VA, but it is so outstanding that it deserves its own separate post. However, this call in and of itself was pretty amazing, and I applaud it.


Nixon said...

This is a disgrace. Most college students live on a shoestring, and scholarships, grants, and the like are typically arranged beforehand. The VA is dragging ass on the money that was promised, and students need to be focused on their studies and not this ridiculous bureaucracy. What a shame!

Nixon said...

Oh yes, and I'm glad Brandon Friedman has the cajones to get bloggers and other malcontents involved in this issue. That would put him in the .001 percentile of federal employees.