Emergency legislation to protect student veterans from losing their GI Bill benefits because of college closings related to the coronavirus outbreak is headed to the president’s desk for final signature after House lawmakers approved the measure Thursday.
The passage came in a pro forma session of the chamber, with only a few lawmakers in attendance and no objection filed from any congressional offices. Earlier in the week, Senate lawmakers rushed the legislation through via a unanimous voice vote.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the measure into law in the next few days. Without it, checks to tens of thousands of student veterans could have been disrupted starting next month.
Concerns surround whether schools' decisions to shift to online-only classes will affect GI Bill housing payments.
“Today, military connected students are free from the burden of worry with their housing allowance and can concentrate on protecting their families and community,” said Tanya Ang, vice president of Veterans Education Success.
“We are thankful for Congress passing this vital legislation that protects GI Bill students from being inadvertently harmed during a time of crisis in our country.”
At issue is how benefits are calculated for the Post-9/11 GI Bill, the most-used benefit for student veterans and their family members for post-secondary education.
Under the current program, veterans receive both tuition money and a monthly living stipend (based on the zip code where they are located) while attending full-time, in-person classes. Students who take classes at online universities and colleges receive the tuition benefit but only half of the housing stipend.
In recent weeks, as dozens of colleges have announced they will shift to online-only classes in an attempt to curb the spread of the coronavirus, veterans groups raised concerns that housing stipends for students would be cut (or cancelled) because of the sudden status change.
The difference could total thousands of dollars for the remainder of the semester for some students, and potentially cause some to miss rent payments or face other significant financial distress.
Under the legislation finalized by Congress — backed strongly by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees — the Veterans Affairs Secretary would be granted to waive regulations and continue benefits payments at existing levels in the event of a national emergency.
In a statement after Thursday’s House passage, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said he was “heartened that Congress was able to come together so quickly to assure (veterans) that we’ve got their backs throughout this crisis."
Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director for policy and legislation at the Tragedy Assistance Program For Survivors, similarly praised the quick action, noting that it took lawmakers only “a matter of days to ensure survivors, veterans and families using the GI Bill will not be penalized during these unprecedented times.”
Jared Lyon, national president of Student Veterans of America, praised the “bipartisan legislative solution” and called for “an equally swift signature to finalize these needed protections” by the president.
Nearly one million individuals have received some type of education benefits from the VA this school year.
More than 7,000 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in America so far, and more than 100 deaths linked to the fast-spreading illness. Worldwide, the virus is responsible for more than 9,000 deaths.