Student veterans applying to use GI Bill benefits would be better served by the Veterans Affairs Department if they were warned of how long it might take to receive those benefits, according to a new congressional report.
Last fall, it took an average 45 days for VA to process an application for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits and an additional 22 days to process the claim for payment, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday.
Processing delays result in many veterans taking on “personal debt to cover their housing expenses or consider dropping out of school,” the report says.
While efforts are underway to reduce the processing time, the report from the congressional watchdog agency says VA isn’t doing something that could be of immediate help: warning students before they enroll how long it might take to get paid.
“VA provides limited information about benefit processing timelines and payment policies to student veterans prior to enrollment, which can leave them unprepared to deal with these payment delays,” the report says.
In a written response to the report, VA officials said they have made great progress, with initial qualification for benefits now taking just 19 days and payments taking six days to process.
VA officials are critical of the tone of report, which they said “spends considerable time focusing on delayed payments to veterans and difficulty reaching someone at the Education Call Centers but little time acknowledging the progress VA has made in both.” Calls on GI Bill questions are now answered in less than two minutes, VA officials said.
As the report recommends, VA officials are, however, providing a way for veterans to get an idea of how long it may take for their benefits to begin: a link on the GI Bill website to the weekly report showing processing times by regional office.
The congressional report says failing to warn students of possible delays in benefits, especially living stipends and book allowances paid directly to the student, limits their financial options.
“In some cases, these delays also made it difficult for veterans to access other sources of federal grants and loans since some schools are reluctant to distribute this aid to students until after tuition and fee payments are received from VA,” the report says.
Some students who met with GAO as part of focus groups to discuss GI Bill processing said they had waited two months or longer for payments, and experienced threats of eviction and cutoff of utilities. Some said they put expenses on credit cards or took out personal loans while waiting for VA to pay.
VA officials said they believe some of the information that the report says veterans are lacking is now being provided as part of Transition Assistance Program workshops for separating service members.