Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Empire Strikes Back: GI Bill Questions Answered

Not much has changed since I posted my love letter to the VA last week. Just from today's Facebook status updates I saw these messages from friends in my old company:

"VA has not finished processing my CH33 app after at least 2 months... now I'm stuck with the bill"


"VA can go to hell! I'm screwed...again..."


Many student veterans are still dealing with issues that are systemic of a large bureaucracy where answers to common questions are lost in the shuffle. The first and last contact for veterans is the school certifying official on their campus. As evidenced in my previous post, the professionalism and tenacity of these officials vary greatly from campus to campus. Some give wise advice, some go the extra mile for the veterans they assist. Some, like mine, laugh at legitimate questions and wait until the last minute to certify enrollment. As this generation of veterans is painfully realizing, you roll the dice any time you interact with the VA system.

Last week I had another opportunity to speak with Keith Wilson, the Veterans Benefits Administration Director of Education Service at the VA. I compiled a list of questions for him to answer, some from me, some from other veterans that have similar problems but haven't received satisfying answers.

***

Onto the questions, starting with the big one:

"When the hell am I getting paid, dammit?"

Not every veteran can piss and moan on a blog loud enough to get a VA official as high as Keith to handle their individual case. He gave me an approximate time frame to expect my housing allowance and stipend money. That is well and good, but what about everyone else? His reply: "First, the certifying official should have the same info I provided. If not available there, it is available by calling VA. Also, I'd be happy to put it on our web and Facebook pages. It should be up in a couple days."

My certifying official provides the same level of care you would expect from a Tijuana back alley vasectomy; he couldn't answer that question after the many calls, voice mails, emails, smoke signals and carrier pigeon messages I relayed to him. I figure I am not an isolated case and assume there must be more apathetic certifying officials out there. As an alternative, Keith recommends calling the VA. If you have three hours and your sanity to spare, give that a shot. The wait is excruciating when you have to juggle a commute, school and work daily, but you might be able to get answers to questions that your school official cannot (or will not) answer.

"How is the Chapter 33 housing allowance paid?"

After you get the first delayed check, expect to see the housing allowance paid just like Chapter 30 payments are made, just without the monthly certification (which will now be automatic). They will come a few days after the beginning of the month, and just like Chapter 30, are paid in arrears (which is hilariously defined as a "delay in payment"). When I asked why the payments are in arrears and not in "real time," Keith had this to say:

"All monthly Federal benefit checks I am aware of, including all recurring VA benefit payments, are paid in arrears. That is because the law requires the person be entitled (in our case having pursued and attended class) before payments can be made. In other words, we can't pay until classes have been attended."

In other words, registering for classes and buying expensive books no longer qualify as reliable indicators of ones interest in schooling. The government and the VA by proxy require a month's worth of sitting in a hard plastic chair to determine eligibility. Registration for the fall semester was open in June at my school. Presumably, I could sign up for classes, have my classes and enrollment certified and housing allowance figured more than two months before classes began. If I would drop a class, I would repay the money. There is already a system in place to deal with that; the VA sends you a bill or simply withholds the due amount the next time you are set to receive a payment. So why the delay? The government's logic is best explained by the most shrewd of businessmen, Whimpy:



"I'll gladly give you an IOU Tuesday for rent due today."

"Will the housing allowance be paid year round?"

No, only during the months you are enrolled in classes. That means if you take the summer off, you will not get paid housing for the months in between the spring and fall semesters. However, for the break in between fall and spring (Christmas break), the VA will "bridge" the gap and continue paying. The same thing goes for the break between the summer and fall semester if you are enrolled in both. The amount of housing allowance received isn't figured just on months accumulated on active duty and the amount of credit hours. The number of days you are enrolled in a particular month figures into the payment amount as well. For example, I took summer classes that ended August 13. The fall semester did not start until August 24, so for the month of August, I was in class twenty days. I will receive the maximum housing allowance payment. If I wouldn't have taken the summer semester, I would have been in class for seven days in August. The payment this September would have been prorated to only include housing for those seven days. At the time of the Q&A, Keith did not have an answer for the amount of enrollment days the VA considers high enough to give the maximum payment.

"What if I'm an overachiever and want to take summer classes? Will I get additional book stipend money to cover that period?"

Negative. The $1000 stipend for books and supplies is meant for a calender year, not an academic year. They figure that $500 a semester, fall and spring respectively, is enough to cover everything. They're correct if you buy your books used, online or rent them, but what about those of us who want to punish ourselves and opt for summer classes? There will be no additional funds handed out to summer semester students, so use your stipend wisely. I suggest putting the $1000 into a separate account so you don't drop it all on a new Kegerator. The $1000 will be paid in two payments of roughly $500 over the next few days (so I'm told). That means I will have to sit tight until next year for another stipend. You might have to dip into your housing allowance a little, but you should be able to stretch that money pretty far if you take the time to hunt for textbooks outside of your overpriced campus bookstore.

"Why did I get a letter asking me to not contact the VA in case I have a question or concern?"

The matter is being looked into. I've heard this a few times and it is particularly unsettling.

"What is taking so long? Didn't the VA anticipate a burden on the system?"

The VA was met with incredible demand for the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Having said that, the VA has been playing catch-up since the bill became law a year ago. According to the AP, the process is done by hand and can take up to two hours to determine the benefits for a single veteran. Keith adds: "Processing claims is currently a labor intensive process due to the limited time allowed to set up this program (i.e. create and modify IT systems, etc). Therefore, VA has hired over 750 additional claims processors. This is a temporary measure because we are moving to an automated system that will require significantly less human interaction in the claims process. Doing so will require significantly less staff and, most importantly, will greatly improve claims processing speed. The system is currently scheduled for full deployment in December 2010."


This is pure speculation on my part, but this initial crush of applications would seem to be the greatest burden on the system. The process will not be automated until next year, but the number of new applications should drop considerably after this fall. With any luck, Chapter 33 applications will be processed in a timely fashion next spring and thereafter.

***

Like I said before, taking on the VA at any time is a gamble. Relying on them to cover your bills is an incredibly risky calculation. Making the switch from Chapter 30 to Chapter 33 this semester was a bad move on the part of many veterans, myself included. Tuition and rent due in August sit heavy on the chest of exhausted students who just want to go to school with few hassles as possible. Tuition payment and housing allowances are not bonuses or lavish gifts or superflous spending. They are benefits earned through sweat on the brow and blood in the sand. I understand that the VA is overtasked and doing the best they can with what they have. We are told that the system will be fixed soon. Unfortunately, promises do not keep the lights on, nor do they do little to assuage the worries of veterans who have earned the right for a little peace of mind.

***

Thanks to Keith Wilson for the generous use of his time answering my questions. If he isn't displeased at my remarks here, hopefully he can return to answer more specific questions that some of you may have. New media and the government should be operating in a way like this, and it shows a great deal of fortitude and transparency for an official like Keith to answer questions from us non-media folk.

***

Useful links:

The VA's GI Bill Homepage
IAVA's GI Bill Info Dump
IAVA's GI Bill Benefits Calculator

15 comments:

Sholom said...

Thanks for the information. I anticipated something like this happening when I went to speak with the University's VA person in April.

Bitch was completely clueless. She spent 10 minutes trying to explain to me eligibility and process for chapter 30. I then spent 5 minutes trying to explain to her that I knew about chapter 30, didn't care about chapter 30, and was interested in pursuing an education under chapter 33.

Almost a year after the bill had been signed into law, she still had not gotten the memo about the Post 9/11 GI Bill.

Mind you, this isn't some po-dunk college, but a highly-ranked public research university.

So I'm not even touching the GI bill for now. I'm starting school this year at the extension campus (cheaper tuition), and covering it with financian aid. When I transfer to the main campus next year, I'll start using my veteran's benefits.

Hopefully, the VA will have their shit together by then.

CI-Roller Dude said...

It's sad to see the VA is still the same. When I went to college in the late 70's on the GI Bill, I ended up hocking my favorite rifle to pay bills.
What I ended up doing was working 36-40 hours a week and taking 12-16 units. I was "lucky" to have a job at night where I could do my homework half the shift.
I'm pretty sure if the VA warned new students ahead of time that the system is still jacked up, most GIs could adjust fire and work with it.
It's when you think you'll be getting a check on a certain date, and it doesn't come for 3 months that things go to shit.

Kevin said...

Thanks. I also went took classes in the summer, so I'm glad to see that the full housing stipend will be paid, eventually. When I called the Muskogee, OK (regional office for California) they weren't much help, they just told me to hurry up and wait. this was so helpful. Thanks again. p.s., next time you talk to keith, will you ask him when i'm getting paid

Army Sergeant said...

Thanks, man. Much as I hate these answers (and have ranted about them a little more pessimistically over at my house, with accreditation of course), it's better than not having them at all.

themorethingschange... said...

Guess this can't be laid at the feet of your VA guy after all. I hope the mess is resolved soon. What's more I'd like your generation to get ALL the school help WWII vets did, including housing for married students. By the time I got to college (1963), it was still standing. Not lavish but handy for married couples in school.

Thanks for your help the day we lost Jordan. I tried to post then but I was just a mess and the best I could do was read so thanks for the links.

Today I finally found a way to "do something" in his honor. I went to SOLDIERS ANGELS web store angelsstore.org and ordered a FIRST RESPONDER BACKPACK in his memory, with thanks for the service of whomever receives it. I'd encourage everyone to do so. You don't have to be a Soldiers Angel to order, tho your help is always welcomed!

~P~

Alex said...

~P~,

There is plenty of blame to go around! He waited a hell of a long time to certify my enrollment and never could get me a straight answer to any of my questions. I put up with him because I have no choice. Hopefully this will be my last semester there, then it's off to a university where the officials are actually accountable for their actions.

That's a great way to honor Jordan's memory. Readers, take note!

budirahardjo said...

God bless Jordan and his family

SomeIraqVeteran said...

This is great information. I wrote an article about the post-9/11 GI Bill but I didn't interview any VA reps. I'm going to link this on my blog if you don't mind.

Ron Jeremiah said...

Thanks for thinking about the rest of us when you were with Keith. My question now is: How about the so-called year round students, like the vocational schools? I am hoping that the VA will pay housing when we have a 2-week break. And yes, VA is so hard to reach and school officials were clueless. Sad to say that we all are experiencing the same thing. No wonder why it's "irrevocable!"

Anonymous said...

My VA rep was absolutely worthless at school. She never returned any voice mails or emails and pretty much left me in the dark. I had to use a local community colleges VA rep to get some basic answers to questions. On top of that, before she was relieved of her job in July, she certified me under Chapter 30 and not Chapter 33. Thankfully, the new VA rep caught the mistake in August. I was told not to expect payments until Nov-Dec. Schools really need to stop putting apathetic administrators into these positions.

-K

Kanani said...

"Tuition payment and housing allowances are not bonuses or lavish gifts or superflous spending. They are benefits earned through sweat on the brow and blood in the sand."

This is something that needs to be put plastered across all of those lawmmaker's offices so that they don't draw back on promises in the future to provide for education and healthcare for all those who served.

I'm sorry you've had a horrible time. I'm glad you've blogged about it. As you've pointed out, you're just one person, but this is undoubtably happening to many.

Give a holler if you ever need any help.

Tom Goering said...

The book money is not $500 a semester. We will be given $42.67 per credit hour up to $1000 per year. So 12 hours is $500.04, if you take 15 hours in the first semester then your first book payment will be $625.05 leaving just $374.95 for books your second semester.

Anonymous said...

I have been checking my account everyday to see if I have gotten any money. I was naive and did not actually read the pamphlets on the Post 9/11 bill and now I am screwed. I have student loans that pay my tution and a payment plan in place, which worked great with CH30. The money from CH 30 paid on my loan, for my housing, grocery, headstart for one child and still had a tiny bit of money for other essentials. Now I will get no money, have to find a job that pays well enough to pay daycare, gas for the 30 minute drive to and then 30 minutes drive back from work. Then find an employer who will give me a flexible schedule to get my 4 year old at 11:30 and take him to daycare with my 2 year old and be able to get them by 5 when the daycare closes! I will soon be living in my van on some public land, that hopefully will not kick me off because I will not have gas money to move the van. Hopefully in another month when the weather turns to below zero my family and I will not die from being frozen.
I wish that the advocate for the 9/11 bill would have focused on the negatives, instead of the positives because I would not have changed to it if I had known that I would not see the money!

Tyrel said...

I had switch over to the new Post 9/11 GI-BIll knowing that it would only cover 80% due to my time 9/11. Which I was totally cool with, because my hack VA rep at my school said that I could take out a couple loans to cover it. Ok. So now 5 months later I am in school and just received a new gi-bill letter saying that I can only receive 40% due to my loan contract and the payback period. WTF! Oh and they add "We apologize for any inconvenience the may have caused"

Tyrel said...

This is a follow up on my last comment. I called the VA today and the reason my rate got changed is because someone there changed my gi-bill startup date. Because when going through my file they miss-read an NA next to the loan repayment line as my initials which are TJB. So now I have to send a letter of disagreement to the VA. Too fix their mistake. WTF