The deaths of three American soldiers in Afghanistan this week are a tragic reminder of why it’s so important for the nation to keep its promises to military men and women, Veterans, no matter where they served, have volunteered to put their lives on the line — and some make the ultimate sacrifice. Those courageous enough to go into battle should face zero delays in getting the education benefits they’ve earned.
Unfortunately, financial aid has been late or gone AWOL this fall for thousands of veterans and their families relying on the GI Bill to get through school. The reason: a big information-technology glitch that surfaced with what seemed like a relatively minor change in how the aid is calculated.
While the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is trying to fix this, a lack of communication by the agency about the delays, coupled with inaction by the U.S. Senate, has left service members-turned-students facing severe financial hardships. This week, the agency was still working to process more than 58,000 student aid claims.
On Wednesday, the VA announced that the information technology fixes will not be completed until December 2019 — more than a year past the original Aug. 1 deadline for finishing this work. This is a national disgrace, one that should prompt congressional leadership to move quickly on short- and long-term solutions. A good start would be swift passage of a Senate bill that would prohibit schools from penalizing student veterans for late VA assistance payments. This would address a major concern that students with accounts in arrears due to delayed payments may not be allowed to enroll for 2019 coursework. Given that the VA has said the tech problems will continue until the end of 2019, this protection is a sensible step.
The House merits praise for unanimously passing hold-students-harmless legislation, which has been dubbed the “SIT-REP” bill. But the legislation is bogged down in the Senate.
“If ever there was a time that it was obvious this bill needed to be passed, now is the time,” said Tanya Ang, vice president of the Veterans Education Success organization, in a statement provided for a Nov. 15 House Veterans Affairs subcommittee hearing.
Other testimony provided at the hearing made it clear that long-term solutions are urgently needed, too. The VA has lacked a permanent chief information officer since January 2017, which is unacceptable given how technology is so critical to delivering service members’ benefits.
President Donald Trump nominated a well-qualified Minnesota native, James Gfrerer, last summer, but the Senate has yet to confirm him. The Senate is expected to take this up soon, but the delay is inexcusable.
Both houses of Congress also need to scrutinize a much larger problem — the antiquated IT systems relied on by the VA and other federal agencies. A statement provided to the House by Booz Allen Hamilton, the private contractor originally hired to update the VA system, makes clear the root of the GI Bill problem: “The unfortunate delay has been caused by the confluence of outdated systems being asked to perform ever complex tasks.”
A 2016 Government Accountability Office report put the age of the VA’s benefits delivery platform at more than a half century. At that time, other agencies, such as the Treasury Department, also had so-called “legacy systems” in that age range. “Many use outdated software and hardware parts that are unsupported,” the report warned.
The GI Bill delay shows how a tweak to these dated systems can be complicated and time-consuming. There’s likely little appetite in Congress to tackle the daunting task of modernization, but leadership is sorely needed.