On its way out the door, the 115th Congress passed a pair of bills aimed at improving education and other aspects of the transition from military to civilian life.
Now that President Trump’s signature has made them law, here’s what the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act and the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act mean for veterans and military families.
1. No more punishing GI Bill students for the VA’s mistakes
Last fall, major technology failures at the Department of Veterans Affairs led to delayed and inaccurate payments for thousands of Post-9/11 GI Bill users, as the agency failed to implement a provision of the Forever GI Bill law that changed the way housing stipends are calculated.
In some cases, students grappling with late rent or mortgage bills as a result of the delays faced another challenge: Their schools charged late fees for tuition bills that VA didn’t pay on time, blocked access to campus facilities or did not allow them to register for the next semester of classes until their balance was covered.
Ashlynne Haycock, deputy director of policy and legislation for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said members of her organization were even advised by schools to take out loans to cover tuition costs — even though the payments were late through no fault of their own.
A portion of the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act, signed into law Dec. 31, requires schools to end these practices if they want to keep enrolling students using GI Bill benefits.
“We are very excited to see this finally come to fruition,” Haycock told Military Times as the bill was making its way through Congress. “We wish it would’ve been in place when things happened with the Forever GI Bill that weren’t so great, but clearly that was a sign that this needed to happen.”
2. VA must fix incorrect payments
About those late payments. The new Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act holds the VA accountable for retroactively fixing payments that were inaccurate as a result of the technology problems.
To accomplish this, the law establishes a so-called “tiger team” to oversee these reimbursements. The team is required to report to Congress every 90 days on the reimbursement plan, and, by July 2020, report how many GI Bill beneficiaries were impacted, and to what extent.
The bill also holds the department to its promise not to collect on any overpayments made to GI Bill users.
“For many student veterans, every dime counts. That’s why the VA needs to get this right and pay student veterans the full amount of money they were promised,” Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said in a statement. The senator co-sponsored the legislation, which also became law Dec. 31.
In a Jan. 4 address to some 2,300 student veterans attending the annual Student Veterans of America National Conference, VA Sec. Robert Wilkie assured students that anyone who was underpaid as a result of the technology issues will be made whole.
“The bottom line is: We owe you every penny that you’ve earned,” he said. “That is what the nation has promised you, and that is what you deserve.”
GI Bill users who did not receive a cost-of-living increase on their fall 2018 payments will get a check in the mail for the difference by the end of the month. The rest of the fixes won’t happen until at least December, when the VA is slated to have its updated technology systems in place.
3. More leverage with landlords
VA is also required to do something else for student veterans under the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act: provide them with electronic proof that they will be receiving housing payments from the VA. Students can then show these to landlords.
Students who live in high-cost areas, especially, can have trouble finding housing without a job to put on their application, according to a House Veterans Affairs Committee staffer familiar with the legislation. The documentation from VA would provide information for landlords, such as how much and how long a veteran will be receiving benefits that help them pay for housing.
Another provision of the new law allows the spouse of a service member who dies on active duty to terminate a residential lease for up to one year after the death without being penalized. This expands on the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, which allows service members to break lease if they deploy or PCS.
4. Local help for transitioning service members
For troops transitioning out of the military, the VA will now post a list of programs and organizations that can help.
The law requires the VA to contract with a non-federal entity to identify these programs, which will include smaller, more community-based organizations, according to the committee aide.
5. Better access to jobs programs for homeless veterans
This provision of the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act is “an absolute game changer” for homeless veterans, said Kathryn Monet, CEO of the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans, which has been advocating for a law like this for five years.
Previously, veterans had to be either on the streets or in a shelter to qualify for employment assistance under the federal Homeless Veterans’ Reintegration Program. But now, veterans have 60 days after moving into housing to apply for these services.
The provision applies to veterans participating in the Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing program and a similar initiative for Native American veterans, as well as the Supportive Services for Veteran Families program. It also applies to veterans who are transitioning after being incarcerated and other recently homeless veterans, according to a summary of the legislation released by Congress.
“It’s basically the difference between housed and going back to homelessness for some of these veterans,” Monet said, adding later, “We know from our work how important this bill is to fix systemic problems that create unnecessary barriers to housing stability for veterans.”
6. Employment benefits for more reservists
Certain members of the National Guard and reserves called to active duty will have more time to use benefits under the VA’s Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment program, or Voc Rehab.
The program provides job counseling and other services for veterans with a VA disability rating of 20 percent or higher. Veterans that qualify must use the program within 12 years of separating from the military.
The clock gets paused for Guardsmen and reservists called to active duty. So, if they get activated for a year, they will get another year to complete Voc Rehab.
Before the new law, this did not apply to members serving under particular orders relating to national emergencies and combatant commands. As a result, such service members would lose time to use the benefit as they continued to serve. Now, the clock gets paused for them the same way as it does for their fellow Guardsman and reservists.
Daniel Elkins, legislative director at the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of the United States, said the new law will help many of the organization’s constituents. Voc Rehab benefits are “hugely important” for those who are service disabled, and this “is an extremely beneficial expansion to those benefits and long overdue,” he said.
7. Voting changes for military spouses
Military spouses can now elect to use the same residence as their active-duty spouse for state and local voting purposes, regardless of when or where they got married and whether they are currently living in that state because of military orders.
Previously, a spouse had to meet the residency requirements of a state on his or her own merit for the purposes of voting.
8. Enhanced burial rights
The new law allows spouses and children of active-duty service members to be buried in veteran cemeteries, even if they pass away before the service member — something that was previously allowed but only with the VA’s approval.
“We did expedite that,” said Patricia Lynch Watts, director of legislative and regulatory service for the National Cemetery Administration. “We tried not to make that too burdensome on the family, but there is certain information that we had to ask for, and it had to go through the process of being approved here by the secretary or the undersecretary, which could delay plans for burial by the family.”
The law also provides headstones and markers for burials in tribal cemeteries that receive grants from the VA. Watts said this corrects a previous oversight, which granted these for state veteran cemeteries but not those on tribal lands.
There are currently 11 tribal veteran cemeteries across the country and another two under construction, according to information provided by the VA.
Watts said the VA is supportive of both changes.
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.