By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Veterans having to wait for BI benefits
Placeholder Image
COCONUT CREEK, Fla. (AP) — Brandon Thomas was hit by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade and twice grazed by bullets fired by the Taliban during his final tour with the Army in Afghanistan.
After risking his life, the 27-year-old father and Purple Heart recipient is one of thousands of veterans who now say they are waiting weeks or months for education benefits under a newly fattened GI Bill, leaving many to scrape up money from family or take loans to cover college costs while the Department of Veterans Affairs pledges to speed up payments.
The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the most significant expansion of education benefits since the original GI Bill in 1944. Eligible veterans receive payments for tuition, housing and a book stipend. The VA says more than 50,000 veterans and their relatives have given notice that they’re enrolled in college for the fall semester and hoping to be reimbursed under the program, which started making payments in August.
Thomas submitted his paperwork to the VA in July, but he’s still waiting for the first check to arrive. When he bought nearly $1,000 in books this semester, Thomas billed it to a credit card.
“What was the alternative?” the business major asked.
In the military, there is a phrase often repeated among troops: “Hurry up and wait.” Hurry to the shooting range. And then, wait for what for anything to begin.
Veterans are now finding themselves repeating that phrase about their GI Bill benefits.
“We’re a patient group of people,” Thomas said. “Patience only goes so long.”
According to the VA, 277,403 claims have been filed for benefits under the Post 9/11 GI Bill. Some 205,704 claims have been processed and the rest are pending. The average processing time is 34 days, up from 28 a month before.
“We’re continuing to work hard and we’re not going to stop until this process is smooth for everybody,” Keith Wilson, director of the VA’s Education Service division, said.
Veterans must complete two steps to receive payment: First, the VA must confirm they are eligible: 189,597 of these claims have been processed, and another 60,071 are pending.
Second, veterans must obtain a certificate of enrollment, which confirms their college attendance. This is done through their school and the VA. There are some 12,258 certifications still pending.
In all, about 51,000 veterans, their spouses or children — who are also eligible for payment under the new bill — have notified the VA of their enrollment for the fall semester. Some 24,186 have been paid and about 27,000 are awaiting payment.
A number of factors are behind the delays: Some schools did not set tuition until mid to late summer, which meant forms needed for payment weren’t received until shortly before the start of school.
The time it takes to process each claim is also lengthened because an automated system is still being developed and won’t be fully in place until December 2010. Meanwhile, it can take more than an hour to process one claim by hand. The VA has hired 760 additional claims examiners to handle the workload.
Most universities are working with students by granting deferrals and, in some cases, issuing vouchers to buy books. But many veterans have taken out loans, billed credit cards, asked parents for money, or dipped into savings as they wait for their claims to be processed.
“Veterans have to operate on the assumption that they’re not going to get their benefits, because you can’t count on that money being there,” said Jason Lindsay, 27, an Army vet who is studying to earn his master’s degree in global security at John Hopkins University. “You have to have a backup plan.”
Lindsay, who served in Kuwait and Iraq, opted to take out a $10,000 loan with a 5.6 percent annual interest rate to cover his tuition, books and living expenses for the semester. By September, he still hadn’t received any VA payments.
“We fought for our country,” he said. “But then we get home and we have to fight for our benefits.”
The VA has encouraged schools to be flexible, and many have made accommodations.
At the University of Maryland, veterans waiting for their GI benefits can place a hold on their tuition payment, which is typically due the same day they register for classes.
The school recently sent out a letter to veterans, many of whom were nervous about the delays.
“We want to be sure you understand that you may attend classes while we are waiting for payment to arrive,” it read.
Sign up for our e-newsletters