This summer the VA's benefit processing system buckled under complex new formulas for GI Bill students. Scores of veterans waited weeks or months to be paid, and some are still waiting. The House Veterans' Affairs Committee is scheduled to grill VA officials over the problem Thursday.
WASHINGTON – Daniel Gorman knows what it’s like to return from war, and he wants to help fellow veterans come home, too: The former sailor turned New York National Guardsman is finishing a graduate degree in social work at Fordham University.
But the Department of Veterans Affairs has thrown his fall semester into chaos by underpaying him without notice or explanation – making him one veteran among potentially tens of thousands on the GI Bill who have watched their bank accounts dwindle because of the agency’s ongoing technology failures.
“I can’t afford rent. I can’t afford groceries. It’s a lot of emotional strain and aggravation,” Gorman, an Iraq War veteran, said. He added: “I’m supposed to graduate in May 2019, but I don’t know if that’s feasible if this persists.”
The problems began this summer when VA’s benefit processing system buckled under complex new formulas for GI Bill students. As a result, scores of veterans waited weeks or months to be paid, and have fallen victim to the agency’s decades-old technology that advocates and lawmakers have warned for months would do precisely what it did – fail.
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Now some veterans are still struggling to overcome financial straits after they took out loans or put expenses on credit cards. And advocates are concerned veterans are taking on financial burdens on top of other challenges, such as mental health and balancing school with family.
The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday raked VA for “massive failures” as agency officials struggled to articulate what progress they made since the problems materialized in August.
Paul Lawrence, VA’s top benefits official, told lawmakers it was a “mistake” to provide earlier estimates for completing the fixes, and said that VA would not provide another timetable for when its technology issues would be resolved.
“Dr. Lawrence, not very encouraging,” Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said. “You failed to account for the scope of the problem and minimized the problem . . . not having a deadline going forward is a recipe for disaster if I ever heard one.”
Lawrence challenged the veracity of the veterans’ complaints cited in this story, which first appeared on the Washington Post’s website Thursday morning, before the hearing. He declined to elaborate, citing privacy issues.
VA has sought to downplay the issue, saying it has returned to a normal workload processing GI Bill benefit claims. But the number of veterans waiting more than 60 days for their payments – 1,000 – ballooned 10 percent since Wednesday, according to updated figures the agency presented to lawmakers. VA has said it focused on addressing older claims first.
About 10,000 student veterans have waited between one and two months to receive payments, VA said.
Other student veterans, like Gorman, have been underpaid. He was set to receive $631 a month while studying full-time. Just $269 arrived Nov. 1 – a hard hit in New York City, given that his course load and unpaid internship make it difficult to work even part time.
“We’ve spent all this money time and we can’t get a paycheck out to somebody,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the committee’s chairman, said Thursday.
In October alone, 1,000 students under financial hardship called a VA hotline for immediate help, said Curt Cashour, VA’s spokesman.
The issue stems from two changes to how claims are processed, Cashour said. Payments are now tied to campus Zip codes, eliminating many overpayments. Other recalculations were designed to offset costs of additional education programs.
But those formulas proved too much for VA systems to handle.
“Essentially, the law requires a 50-year-old IT platform that was designed to do the equivalent of basic math to instead perform something akin to calculus in short order,” Cashour said.
About 450,000 veterans have been affected, though VA hasn’t explained the depth of their issues.
“I’m asking myself, are we destined to live with these IT problems regardless of how much taxpayer money we invest? It’s embarrassing. It’s shameful,” Lou Correa, D-Calif., told VA officials during Thursday’s hearing.
In July, VA noted a series of technology challenges but it appeared confident its systems could handle the new, complicated rules. “We have a handful of defects left,” Robert Worley, the VA official who oversees veterans education benefits, assured the House VA committee at the time.
Worley is being reassigned, NBC News reported Thursday. He is relocating from the agency’s central offices in Washington to become executive director of VA’s regional office in Houston, a move that’s expected to take place in January. “Rob chose to take this opportunity,” Cashour said.
The title of the July hearing – “Is VA Ready for August 1st?” – reflected a concern over the hundreds of thousands of veterans heading to school.
It was also a question.
“The resounding answer was no,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, the assistant director of policy at Vietnam Veterans of America.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie acknowledged the widespread failures in a Sept. 27 hearing, telling lawmakers that “even something as simple as changing the percentages broke the system.”
VA, which received nearly $200 billion in funding this year, delayed implementation until it could solve its issues.
Problems have persisted. Roe told Wilkie in a Nov. 5 letter that his staff’s visit to a VA processing center yielded disturbing findings. Crashes and latency problems over six months wasted 16,890 man hours, according to the letter.
That totals nearly two years.
When asked why VA relies on ancient computer systems, Cashour pointed to the Veterans’ Affairs committees, suggesting it was a funding issue.
“It’s laughable that VA is blaming Congress for its IT issues, especially given the fact that Congress just passed the largest VA budget in history,” said Molly Jenkins, a House VA committee spokeswoman, calling the agency’s IT failures “inexcusable, decades long, and well documented.”
VA was allotted $30 million to improve its system, Jenkins said, adding that VA was six months late with a required progress update.
“[VA] sounded no alarms in their May 2018 report that there would be any delays at all,” Jenkins said.
Consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton helped implement the processing system. Richard Crowe, a senior vice president at the firm, told lawmakers the company has not invoiced VA for its work on the project.
Associated costs have soared. VA marshaled a battalion of 202 additional employees to process education claims at a cost of $4.5 million since August, Stars and Stripes reported, though the problems remain unsolved.
Veterans have left scores of angry messages on VA social media channels.
“How long can this take to fix?” Jon Shirah asked on the agency’s GI Bill Facebook page on Nov. 5. ″It’s been over 2 months without pay.”
A staffer for the American Legion, rather than VA, contacted Shirah to help.
Advocates have criticized VA for waiting months to alert veterans of the problem and suggest VA could have warned veterans to prepare for financial challenges.
VA issued an alert on Oct. 10, apologizing for delays and conceding it caused “financial hardship” for veterans. The bulletin also included a plea to universities not to penalize veterans for late payments.
VA’s announcements were news to former Navy helicopter pilot Stephanie Erwin, now a doctoral candidate at George Washington University. She first heard from her school – not VA – that massive problems were occurring.
Her housing payments of around $2,300 did not show up for two months. She relied on savings to stay afloat. “A lot of veterans are hesitant to raise their hand and ask for help,” she said.
But her savings dwindled, and grants awarded to her were locked by the school because VA had not paid her tuition. Those grants helped pay for food and medical insurance. Erwin asked for help from the American Legion on Nov. 5.
VA issued her payments around Veterans Day.
Officials told lawmakers VA was confident they could solve its technology issues by the spring. Veteran advocates remain skeptical.
“I don’t have indication VA is ready at all,” Goldsmith said, frustrated with the potential with more uncertainty. “I don’t think the American people intended the GI Bill to feel like a deployment.”