Proposed changes to expand and extend the Post-9/11 GI Bill would mean a considerable amount of behind-the-scenes work for the agency in charge of administering the updated benefits.
"Probably my biggest concern is two words: IT," said Curtis Coy, the Department of Veterans Affairs deputy under secretary for economic opportunity for the Veterans Benefits Administration.
Coy was speaking to lawmakers on behalf of the VA Monday at a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing for the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2017. The new legislation, released by the committee last week — and supported by VA officials — includes an expansion of benefits for reservists, Purple Heart recipients and surviving dependents, as well as the elimination of a requirement that veterans use their education benefits within 15 years of active-duty service, among other provisions.
"Almost all of these sections require some degree of changes in our IT system, and that's what concerns me the most," Coy said.
A vast majority of VA claims are calculated automatically, said James Ruhlman, acting deputy director for program management in education service at the VA. So a GI Bill overhaul represents significant changes to each of those automated systems that are set to Post-9/11 GI Bill standards for how much GI Bill users should receive.
For example, under current law, service members with at least 90 days but less than six months of active-duty service would be eligible for up to 40 percent of the full GI Bill benefits, which include payment of tuition and fees, a monthly housing allowance and a stipend for textbooks and supplies. Under new regulations, the same 90-days-to-six-month window is equal to 50 percent of benefits, which means changes to calculations for the new tier system.
The legislation, in its current state, allots $30 million for the updates. This will be paid for through a 1 percent decrease in housing allowances for new enrollees over five years, said committee Chairman Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn.
Should the bill pass the House and Senate and eventually become law, the VA will have until August 2018 to complete its updates.
"We realize that we can't dump all these new regulations on their lap and say, 'Here, fix it for this fall semester,'" Roe said.
The VA experienced a "steep learning curve" when the Post-9/11 GI Bill went into effect, the chairman said, but he expects things to go differently this time.
"I remember that. It was a disaster. (GI Bill recipients) couldn't get paid, and they couldn't get their housing allowances," he said. "I think they learned a lot from that. I think you'll see a much smoother rollout."