By Christian Davenport
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008
The new GI Bill passed by Congress over the summer, which dramatically expands veterans benefits, was lauded as a sign that the country was looking after this generation of warriors. But don't extol its virtues to Grey Adkins, who served two tours with the Navy off the coast of Iraq, is $10,000 in debt and won't see a dime of the new benefits.
Even though it is called the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the new legislation won't take effect until Aug. 1, 2009 -- eight years after jets felled the twin towers and other planes crashed into the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania. By then, Adkins will have graduated from Towson University. And because the bill is not retroactive, it won't help him at all.
The difference it would make is stark. Currently, he receives $1,600 a month during the school year, or about $15,000. Under the new bill, he would be eligible for up to twice that amount each school year.
So far, more than 410,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have used the current GI bill, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs -- and many, like Adkins, will finish school before the new benefits start.
Many advocates for veterans say that it took too long to update a GI Bill that has not kept pace with the escalating price of college tuition. But now there is also concern that the VA won't be able to meet the August deadline after it abruptly abandoned its plan to hire a private contractor this month and instead will implement the new program itself.
At stake is one of the most cherished programs offered by the U.S. government. First signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt two weeks after D-Day in 1944, the GI Bill made home ownership and college education accessible to so many that it was dubbed "the Magic Carpet to the Middle Class." Over the years, however, the benefits lagged, which was why Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) introduced the Post-9/11 GI Bill on his first day in office in 2007.
Unlike the current GI Bill, which for years covered just half the national average cost of tuition, room and board and requires a $1,200 buy-in fee, the new benefit, expected to cost $62 billion over 10 years, would pay the full cost of any public college. It also provides a $1,000 a year stipend for books and a monthly living stipend that averages about $1,100 but varies by Zip code.
Meanwhile, since the Webb bill passed, current GI Bill benefits increased 20 percent so that the highest monthly payment is $1,321, unless, like Adkins, a service member pays a fee for increased benefits.
When the bill was signed into law June 30, Webb pushed to make the benefits effective immediately. But the VA, citing the complexity of the legislation, said it needed more time to develop a plan to implement the system and the help of an outside information technology contractor to get it up and running on time.
At a congressional hearing last month, Stephen W. Warren, the VA's principal deputy assistant secretary for information and technology, said hiring a contractor was "the only way we could see getting there. Using our staff and our existing system tools and skill sets would not get us there. And it is difficult for a leader of an organization to say, 'My people cannot do it.' "
But after criticism from some veterans organizations, who said such a vaunted program should not be placed in the hands of a private company, the VA changed course, saying it could not find a suitable contractor and would administer the bill "in-house." The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union, also applied pressure by filing a protest with the Government Accountability Office.
In a statement, Veterans Affairs Secretary James B. Peake vowed that although it was "unfortunate that we will not have the technical expertise from the private sector," the department "can and will deliver the benefits program on time."
But that has not allayed the concerns of some veterans groups and members of Congress, who have been highly critical of the department's handling of the new GI Bill and said the department's recent about-face has made them even more concerned that the benefits will not be available on time.
"This leaves me with very little confidence, because they spent all that time and all that effort saying they couldn't do it," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. "And now they can? . . . It better be ready, that's all I can say."
"They've got nine months to make this go live," said Eric Hilleman, deputy director of national legislative services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars. "So we want to see them get on the ball. They've known about this since the end of June, and they had the money from that point forward. So now we are anxiously waiting to see how they plan to proceed."
The VA has had a contingency plan ready to process the payments manually in case it couldn't find a contractor to develop a computer program, said Keith Wilson, the department's director of education service.
Initially, the VA told Congress that it would have to hire as many as 800 people to do that, all of whom would no longer be needed once the VA was able to develop a computer system. Wilson said the number of additional employees would be "significantly lower" than 800 but could not say how many the VA planned to hire.
"We're going to do everything in our power to make sure the resources are there to make sure payments are going out," he said. "We have a very high level of confidence that checks will go out in a timely manner, as they do now."
Not all veterans organizations are worried about the VA's ability to deliver the new benefits on time.
The American Legion, which helped craft the original GI Bill, was strongly against the VA turning over "ownership of one of its most important benefits to the lowest bidder," said Peter Gaytan, the group's director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation.
"They've had to turn to their backup plan, and we trust that they can do it," he said.
Webb's office has been working with the VA, a spokeswoman said, and his "chief interest is that the new comprehensive GI Bill is effective on August 1 for all post-9/11 veterans, as called for by law." Webb has also fought to make the new benefits retroactive to Aug. 1, 2008, but has been unsuccessful.
Tim Kaufmann, a 25-year-old student at George Washington University, paid close attention as the bill was being debated this year. When it passed, he was thrilled, because he was already $30,000 in debt from GWU's tuition and living expenses. But then he realized that the new benefits wouldn't go into effect until Aug. 1, 2009, which meant that because he was on track to graduate in December 2009, he'd receive just one semester's worth of the increased payment.
"At least they're doing something proactive for veterans. It's really inconvenient for me and many others who feel not let down, but more like, 'What about me?' " he said. "It sounds selfish, but if it was a year earlier, it would have made my life a lot easier."
He thought about taking a year off college so that his entire senior year would be covered by the new GI Bill but decided against it. As a Marine who served in Iraq's Anbar province in 2005, he became fascinated by Arab culture and decided to learn the language at GWU. Studying Arabic, he said, "is not something you can take a year off from."
David Fernandez didn't even consider applying to his dream school, Georgetown University, because it was prohibitively expensive, he said, even with the current GI Bill. Instead, Fernandez, who is now a 25-year-old medic in the Army Reserve after five years of active duty and two Iraq tours, went to Northern Virginia Community College because it was far less expensive. But with the new GI Bill coming, he plans to transfer to Georgetown in the spring, even though he knows the current GI Bill will cover only a fraction of the cost.
If the new GI Bill is delayed, he'd probably have to go back to community college.
"I was going to bite the bullet" to go to Georgetown in the spring, he said. "But I can't bite the bullet for too much longer."