VA owes veterans housing allowances under the GI Bill, forcing some into debt

State of the Nation

Source: NBC News

If Jane Wiley and her husband Ryan Wiley, both discharged from the Marines, don’t receive the housing allowance they get through the GI Bill by November 1, she expects that they will run out of money for food and rent. The two former Marines would also have to stop attending school if they can’t afford childcare for their two kids.

The Wiley family is not alone. Because of a software issue, the Department of Veteran Affairs is struggling to pay student veterans the housing allowance and other benefits provided to them via the GI Bill.

The federal agency has paid some veterans too much, too little, or nothing at all. It is up to two months late on payments in some cases, forcing potentially thousands of former service members to spiral financially.

The Wileys depended on those checks and included them in their monthly budget. Without them, they instead have a handful of maxed out credit cards and no expectations of when they might be paid.

NBC News spoke to 10 veterans who had to borrow money from family, take out loans, or open new credit cards — and watch their bank accounts trend steadily toward zero — because their payments were delayed.

“People are homeless and starving because they can’t rely on getting their benefits,” said Jane Wiley, who left the Marines in June 2016 and now serves as a reservist in the Air Force. “If it means making [VA] employees stay all night, then get it done because it’s better than putting families in crisis.”

Wiley said she is frustrated because she sent in the paperwork to be certified to receive her benefits nearly two months ago, but has no idea when or if she’ll receive a check. The VA has provided her — and the other veterans NBC News spoke to — few answers.

“You can count on us to serve,” said Wiley, 31, who attends Texas A&M San Antonio, “but we can’t count on the VA to make a deadline.”

The VA said the problem currently stems from an IT problem caused by changes to the law when President Donald Trump signed the Forever GI Act last year. New standards for calculating housing stipends were to be implemented on August 1, but it caused “severe critical errors” during testing that “resulted in incorrect payments,” VA spokesman Terrence Hayes said.

As a result, the VA decided to postpone the deployment of the system. It is now paying students under 2017 rates — ignoring the 1 percent increase for 2018 — and plans to reimburse students the difference they are owed at some point in the future.

As of now, the agency does not know how many veterans are impacted but expects that 360,000 veterans will have to be paid the 2017 rate. It will be “unable to identify the number of Veterans solely impacted by delayed payments” until they are able to process every veterans’ enrollment documents, Hayes said.

“Education Service has placed the Regional Processing Offices in a mandatory overtime status and have 202 temporary employees on hand to assist with the pending inventory,” he said in a statement. “With these measures in place we are processing over 16,000 claims per day.”

Hayes did not respond for comment when asked how much the additional 202 temporary employees would cost the VA.

It’s just another example of how the VA, in this capacity, does not have their s— together.

The VA’s Office of Information Technology and Veterans Benefits Administration believe the problem could be solved by the end of the year, but many veterans said none of this has been conveyed to them, leaving them directionless.

The lack of communication has only exacerbated the problem, said veteran Jarid Watson, 37. He faults what he called “toxic leadership” at the VA for these ongoing issues. Watson said he has fallen behind on his mortgage payments because of the delay and added that, at the very least, the VA could have explained the problem.

“It would at least show there was some sort of strategy, some sort of plan, some sort of organization,” said Watson, who received a medical discharge from the Air Force as a tech sergeant in 2016 after 12 years of service. “It’s just another example of how the VA, in this capacity, does not have their s— together, and that comes from the very top.”

 

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