A law signed by President Donald Trump on Thursday, prior to the current congressional session, requires the VA to "make whole" any student-veterans whose education benefits have been negatively affected by delays in implementing the Forever GI Bill.
VA officials, including Secretary Robert Wilkie, already have promised such make-goods in various releases and speeches, including Wilkie's appearance Friday, remotely, at the Student Veterans of America National Convention in Orlando, Fla. The law - S 3777, also known as the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act of 2018 - states it is “the sense of Congress” that by Jan. 1, 2020, the VA secretary must “make whole the individuals entitled to payments of monthly stipends … who have been underpaid as a result of the difficulties encountered by the Department of Veterans Affairs in carrying out” the new legislation.
[RELATED: MOAA's Transition and Career Center]
The Forever GI Bill requires the VA to change how it calculates housing stipends for student-veterans, mandating that it use the location the student attends classes, rather than the location of the school itself. This change was to go into effect in August, but VA officials cited “continued information technology difficulties” with this provision and another portion of the new law in a Nov. 28 statement that pushed back the agency's planned compliance to December 2019.
The next day, after VA Under Secretary Paul Lawrence faced pointed questions during a hearing before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's disability assistance and memorial affairs subcommittee, Wilkie issued a statement pledging that “each and every beneficiary will receive retroactively the exact benefits to which they are entitled under law.”
The new law helps ensure that by instructing the VA to create a “Tiger Team” that will target fixes to the stipend issue. The team, which is to include a senior-level official as its lead officer, must submit a plan to Congress within 90 days that outlines:
- How VA will determine who was underpaid, and how it will correct payment amounts.
- How it will improve its technology to issue corrected amounts.
- How much “additional funding and personnel requirements” will be necessary to complete the process.
Congress also mandated a report by July 1, 2020, that will outline how many veterans were affected by the delay; how many received a corrected payment and how much they received; and whether any additional student-veterans were still awaiting such a payment … and why.
[RELATED: MOAA's Interview with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie]
The payment problems also may lead to overpayments on some housing stipends. VA officials said previously that they will not attempt to recoup these payments; the new law includes a “sense of Congress” passage echoing that decision.