VA making progress on student payments, lawmakers still not satisfied

The Department of Veterans Affairs is checking off a list of recommendations to improve the wait time for payments to veterans trying to attend school through the G.I. bill, but lawmakers are still unhappy with the progress.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill gives student veterans direct payments for things like housing and books, but tuition is still paid directly to universities. But the complexities of the bill have left some veterans out to dry when it comes to making payments to their schools.

VA Director of the Education Service Veterans Benefits Administration Robert Worley told Congress the VA cut its processing time for claims down to 21 days and to six days for supplemental claims for things like books and housing.

The use of the Long Term Solution (LTS) IT system has been partly to thank for that. The system processes an average of 5,200 claims a day without human intervention. A 2015 GAO report gave VA recommendations to improve the system and other issues, which VA is acting on.

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But House Veterans Affairs Economic Opportunity Subcommittee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas) says that’s not good enough.

“I’m not satisfied. I think in this case you’ve got system LTS that was implemented that made some significant headway … but they didn’t go all the way,” Arrington told Federal News Radio after a June 8 hearing. “It just doesn’t seem like it’s as strategic and well organized as it should be. So we are not yielding all the benefits that I think we could and should be getting from IT systems. Every organization deals with this, but I think the VA has more challenges in pulling all this together.”

Worley said additional functionality is needed for the LTS system to get it working better. Features that could get it working faster include automated certificates of eligibility for original claims, electronically generated letters, expanded automation of supplemental claims, issuance of advanced payments, monthly certification of attendance and improved business analytics for reporting purposes.

Other IT systems dealing with claims and benefits need much more work. The Benefits Delivery Network (BDN), which is a claims processing, payment, tracking and disposition system for education is in need of a total replacement.

“Support and maintenance are difficult or impossible to find for 70’s-era systems like BDN. Warranties have expired, security best practices that are common on newer systems cannot be used, integration with newer systems is increasingly difficult to support and the knowledge pool for ongoing support and maintenance is becoming nonexistent as experts retire,” Worley said in his opening statement to Arrington’s committee.

Those IT issues are leaving some decisions pending, which sometimes keeps students from attending class because of outstanding debts.

Compounding the problem is Defense Department assistance in providing electronic records to the VA when requested.

Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Military Personnel Lernes Hebert told the committee it takes about 10 days for DoD to get VA the information it needs on veterans.

Overall, taking the VA claim average and the DoD delivery time together it would take more than a month students to get a claim if everything runs smoothly.

Overpayments

VA is also struggling with overpayments to schools and beneficiaries. The 2015 GAO report stated the VA made $416 million in overpayments in 2014.

The VA hasn’t made overpayments that large since, but the problem still persists. VA has $106 million in outstanding overpayments from 2016. It also has $49.5 million outstanding from 2015, $31 million still uncollected from 2014 and $47 million from 2013 and before.

One major issue is that only $6.9 million of that is in the hands of schools. The rest is spread out to individual students across the nation.

“Somebody has got to be held accountable for not being able to manage [the debt] and now it’s getting away from us. There’s some management issues there,” Arrington told Federal News Radio.

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