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Veterans Struggling as They Await GI Bill Funds Get Relief

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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 26, 2009

Thousands of veterans who returned to school this semester under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and have yet to receive tuition, housing and textbook payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs will each be eligible for $3,000 in emergency aid, agency officials announced Friday.

"Students should be focusing on their studies, not worrying about financial difficulties," Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric K. Shinseki said in a statement.

The agency has been overwhelmed by a flood of applications. Of the 251,000 students who have submitted claims this year, 24,186 -- less than 10 percent -- have received checks, according to Veterans Affairs officials. They point out, however, that not all of those students intend to use the benefits this year. Although many universities are deferring tuition payments, the delays have forced students to take out loans, rack up credit card debt and consider dropping out of school in order to meet living expenses, according to veterans and groups that advocate on their behalf.

Now, starting Oct. 2, veterans can request a $3,000 advance on their housing and book allowances by bringing a photo ID, course schedule and eligibility certificate to one of the agency's 57 regional offices, including in the District and Baltimore. The agency said it would also send officials to some college campuses and help coordinate transportation to regional offices.

Veterans service organizations, which have been pressuring the agency to help students who are struggling to pay bills, praised the move. "We are proud to see Secretary Shinseki take immediate action to ensure student veterans are able to remain in school and concentrate on what is important: attaining a college degree," said Derek Blumke, executive director of Student Veterans of America. "It's not over yet -- there's still the backlog."

Officials at Veterans Affairs recognized that the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which is more generous than previous iterations, would result in a flood of claims that would challenge the agency's processing capacity, said Keith Wilson, director of education service for the VA. To speed payments, the agency hired 760 claims processors and last month mandated that employees work overtime.

But the bill's relative complexity, coupled with an outdated system that requires manual data entry, means progress has been slow. After a veteran has applied for benefits and his or her school has submitted a certification of enrollment to Veterans Affairs --two steps that can take months -- it takes another 35 days, on average, before a check is cut.

"We're not happy about it," said Wilson, a Navy veteran who used the GI Bill to attend the University of Nebraska. "I know exactly the situation that these students are in, and it's painful to me to think that we're not meeting their expectations."

Whereas the Montgomery GI Bill and other veteran benefit programs require simple flat-rate payments to individuals, the new bill, which became effective Aug. 1, is more complicated.

There are three different payments: Tuition checks (up to the cost of the most expensive public institution in a given state) are sent to schools. Allowances for housing, which vary by ZIP code according to cost of living, and textbooks are paid directly to the veterans.

Processing one claim requires a VA employee to twice transcribe information from one computer system to another, Wilson said. A new system will allow claims-processing to be fully automated by December 2010, he said.

"It's a great deal," said Michael DeVaughn, 25, of the new GI Bill. DeVaughn, a student at Anne Arundel Community College, is making ends meet by living at home with his parents and working as many hours as he can get at J.C. Penney. "It just needs to start working."


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