ORLANDO, Fla. — Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie told a large gathering of student veterans Friday that his No. 1 priority for the VA in 2019 is quality customer service.
That’s why the VA will correct inaccurate payments made to thousands of student veterans last fall. Stymied by technical problems, the department has been giving students the wrong housing stipend amounts for months and continues to do so — long after the Aug. 1 deadline Congress gave VA to calculate housing stipends under revised rules.
“The bottom line is: We owe you every penny that you’ve earned. That is what the nation has promised you, and that is what you deserve,” Wilkie said, addressing some 2,300 student veterans attending the annual Student Veterans of America National Conference via livestream, after his plans to attend in-person were cancelled last minute because of travel restrictions amid the government shutdown.
The Forever GI Bill, which became law in 2017, required VA to change the way it calculates housing stipends in two ways. One mandated that VA alter stipends for new students to match what the Department of Defense pays its E-5s with dependents. The other instructed VA to calculate stipends based on the campus where students take most of their classes, rather than the school’s main campus, which has traditionally been used to determine housing stipends.
VA wasn’t able to make either change by the initial deadline. But fixes are on the way, according to Wilkie.
GI Bill users who were shorted as a result of the first of those problems will receive a check in the mail for the difference by the end of the month, Wilkie said. Any veterans who were overpaid will be allowed to keep the extra money.
A solution to the campus problem will not come until December 2019. VA recently ended its contract with Booz Allen Hamilton, its initial partner for this part of the project. The department plans to have a new contract awarded by next month to another vendor, which it expects to correct the campus-based stipend problems in time for the spring 2020 semester.
At that point, the department will retroactively correct payments for students who would have received a larger housing allowance attending a branch campus, rather than their school’s main campus.
In his remarks after the secretary’s, Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon called last fall’s delays “unacceptable” and said the “reset will allow the VA to step off on the right foot and create a better path that will better serve students and schools."
“While the reset was needed, our work is not done. This new situation means a new process, and SVA will continue to be there ready to speak up on behalf of those most directly impacted by VA’s decisions," Lyon said.
Wilkie assured student veterans that under his leadership, they have a permanent seat at the table at the VA and are “now at the center of our operations.”
He urged any veterans experiencing financial hardship because of the delays to reach out to the department to get their payments expedited.
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.