The average student veteran using the Post-9/11 GI Bill this fall has had to wait more than 3 weeks for their housing benefits to come through.
The Veterans Affairs Department alerted students to the higher-than-normal wait times in an email this week, noting that average processing times are currently around 23 days for continuing GI Bill claims and 35 days for first-time claims. In general, VA aims to process such claims in 14 days and 28 days, respectively.
What’s causing the delay?
“It’s a combination of things,” a VA spokesperson told Military Times.
Among those factors is the delayed implementation of the Forever GI Bill law, which changed the way housing stipends should be calculated. Though the due date for the VA to roll that out was Aug. 1, the department has encountered major snags in its software updates, and students who have received housing stipends are getting paid under 2017 rules until fixes are made.
Coast Guard veteran and reservist Amanda Matos is using her GI Bill for the first time and said she purposely enrolled in just enough graduate classes at Rutgers University this semester to receive a housing stipend.
Yet Matos hasn’t received any money for housing as of the second week of October, and her school bill remains unpaid, she told Military Times.
“If I wasn’t working, I don’t know how we’d be able to survive,” she said. “It’s just been a huge inconvenience.”
Christina Lopez at Central Michigan University, also a Coast Guard veteran, said she has not received anything from the VA either — despite the fact that she’s a returning student and should have received her stipend more quickly than a first-time GI Bill user such as Matos.
Lopez wasn’t terribly concerned at first when the payment didn’t arrive in September, she said, but at this point the extended delays have put her family in a “tight spot.”
“We really need and depend on the stipend from the VA. I'm taking seven classes this semester, so I also don't have the time or bandwidth to go randomly look for a part-time job,” she said, adding that it’s too late in the semester to drop classes without a penalty.
The VA spokesperson said the department currently has about 127,000 claims to process for students using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which pays not just tuition costs, but also stipends for housing and textbooks.
Because a single GI Bill user could have multiple claims pending — if they attend multiple schools at one time or have already started a new term — and not all users are eligible for housing stipends, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how many students have been impacted by the delays.
Compared to this time last year, the VA actually has fewer claims that have been pending for more than 60 days, the spokesperson said, and a majority of GI Bill users who are owed a housing stipend have been paid at least once this semester — albeit at the old rate.
Barrett Bogue, vice president for public relations at the nonprofit Student Veterans of America, told Military Times, “We are eager to learn what steps VA is taking now to ensure this delay does not negatively affect the GI Bill and student veterans during the spring 2019 semester. Now, more than ever, we need VA to be more customer-focused in addressing the critical IT issues implementing the Forever GI Bill so that this delay does not persist.”
Veterans of Foreign Wars has asked its members to contact the organization if delays persist.
“We will intervene directly with the VA to ensure your housing allowance is correct and paid,” VFW National Commander B.J. Lawrence said in a statement. “In the meantime, I would encourage all student veterans to contact their landlords and explain the VA’s computer processing problem, and for landlords to be patient and understanding, because they will be paid.”
The VA is taking an “all-hands approach” to getting the outstanding claims processed, the spokesperson said; “If you’ve ever processed a claim before, you’re processing it now.”
Students can contact the VA at https://gibill.custhelp.va.gov/app/utils/login_form/redirect/ask.
Natalie Gross has been reporting for Military Times since 2017. She grew up in a military family and has a master's degree in journalism from Georgetown University.