WASHINGTON — Universities and colleges are still waiting for tuition payments for thousands of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who attended school last fall under the new GI Bill, leaving the veterans panicked that they'll be unable to return to class in January.
Veterans Affairs Department officials promise to get them back into the classroom. The VA says the number of veterans with claims unprocessed is now fewer than 5,000 — down from tens of thousands — and the goal is to have them all processed by the end of the year.
"We continue to work on a daily basis with schools to make sure that no student is denied attending class as a result of delayed tuition payments," Katie Roberts, a VA spokeswoman, said Tuesday. "It's a top priority for VA to make sure that students can focus on their studies rather than their bank accounts."
But after being besieged by delays and financial hardship last semester that left them struggling to make rent payments and pay for textbooks, many veterans are frantically contacting veterans service organizations such as the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America for guidance.
Clay Hunt, a former Marine corporal who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, attends Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. He said he and his wife have racked up about $4,000 in credit card debt because his university won't release student loans he needs for living expenses until tuition is fully paid. Hunt, 27, said that under the GI Bill the school is owed about $6,000 and he personally is owed about $1,700 for housing and books.
"I am disappointed about it," Hunt said. "I'm very disappointed about the way it was implemented. I feel like the VA had ample time to figure out how they were going to disperse these payments and make sure this transition to the new GI Bill went smoothly, and they definitely failed to do that."
Tom Tarantino, legislative associate for New York-based IAVA, which lobbied for the education benefit and is pushing Congress to simplify the formula for determining what amount veterans receive, said he talked to one veteran who graduated but hasn't been allowed to get his diploma because the tuition hasn't been paid. Others weren't allowed to enroll for the spring semester, he said.
"The next semester is going to be a mess. Straight up," Tarantino said. "I don't know if it's going to be as bad as this semester was, but it is going to be ugly."
Beyond the tuition, many veterans have had to wait for funds paid directly to them for housing and books. To help cushion the blow, the VA issued $3,000 emergency checks to more than 68,000 veterans, but for some the money has run out.
President Obama rolled out the post-9/11 GI Bill on Aug. 3, and praised it as an opportunity to transform the lives of a new generation of veterans. It's designed to be the most comprehensive education benefit for veterans since World War II.
The maximum benefit allows eligible veterans to attend a public college or university for free for four years and provides a monthly housing stipend and up to $1,000 a year for books. Active-duty service members can transfer the benefit to their spouses or children.
It's estimated that $78 billion will be paid and so far the VA has paid about $1 billion to almost 150,000 veterans.
But the complexity of the formula used to establish what the veteran receives, and a clunky information technology system used by the VA to process claims, means that each claim takes about an hour and a half to process and has to be manually processed in four different IT systems.
Keith Wilson, director of the VA's Office of Education Service, told a congressional panel on Dec. 3 that the agency is using "brute force" to get claims processed. The number of staff has increased from 800 to 1,200, and the VA implemented a mandatory overtime policy. The VA expects to have all claims received by Jan. 15 paid by Feb. 1.
Wilson said the VA is open to the possibility of doing another round of emergency payments. It is set to have an automated system fully running in December of next year.