VA seeks to reduce GI Bill payment delays after IT woes

VA seeks to reduce GI Bill payment delays after IT woes
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. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (Andrew Harnik)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, left, lowers his head after placing 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. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, left, lowers his head after placing 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. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik) (AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday promised to try to speed up payments to thousands of veterans after delays caused by information technology problems.

"We are working diligently to minimize these delays affecting GI Bill students," said Paul Lawrence, VA's undersecretary for benefits. "We're frustrated that we don't have a solution in place."

Last year, President Donald Trump signed off on the biggest boost in GI benefits in a decade, but the legislation did not fully take into account the additional time needed to upgrade VA's aging IT systems in order to process claims. The expanded benefits took effect this fall.

Among the GI Bill changes was a provision that offered monthly housing stipends to veterans based on the ZIP codes of the campus where they attend the most classes, rather than defaulting to the main campuses. That meant a change to the IT systems for hundreds of thousands of GI Bill recipients.

According to VA data provided to The Associated Press, as of this week, about 56,500 veterans had outstanding claims for their GI education benefits, down from 82,000 last week. The numbers include claims recently received, so not all represent a backlog or delayed payment. Out of the 56,500, about 825 were claims pending more than 60 days, the VA said

Veterans were being paid at the 2017 level until IT problems were fixed.

The department estimated that veterans were likely receiving an average of less than 1 percent of what they should be getting in housing benefits. It said students who were underpaid would receive the remaining amount once IT upgrades are completed. Those who were overpaid due to the change in law would be able to keep the difference.

The average claim takes approximately 15 days to process, the VA said in a statement.

The department acknowledged that payment of GI benefits could still experience problems in the months ahead until IT systems are fixed.

Still, the VA said it expected better performance in processing claims next spring and pushed back on suggestions of widespread evictions or students being kicked out of school due to late payments.

"The allegation of widespread veteran homelessness due to missed payments is false," Lawrence told a House subcommittee hearing on Thursday.

Last week, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie expressed hope that upgraded IT systems could be put in place sometime "early next year." The agency is also working on restoring benefits for students whose college closed down mid-program, Wilkie said. That is the case for thousands of veterans who were hurt by the collapse of for-profit college giants ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges in 2015 and 2016.

"I will tell you that the payments are flowing," Wilkie said last week.

The VA said students can contact its call center at 1-888-442-4551 if they are encountering problems with their GI benefits.

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