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Some fear GI Bill changes could overwhelm VA

Upcoming changes to the GI Bill could help more veterans get a college degree but some politicians fear the alterations may cause more problems for the troubled Department of Veteran Affairs.

The GI Bill is a benefits program that started after World War II and helps veterans cover the cost of getting a college education or job training. Last year, congress passed a law making several alterations to the GI Bill including a few that went into effect immediately and several more that take effect Aug. 1.

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The changes were part of the Colmery Act, also known as the “Forever GI Bill,” which was signed into law by President Donald Trump in February. The legislation’s most prominent change was the elimination of a 15-year limit for post-9/11 veterans to use their GI Bill benefits, according to the VA. That change went into effect right away last year.

“I think they tried to close up some gaps that the original one had,” said Amanda Watkins, associate director of Wright State University’s Veteran and Military Center. “Putting a limit on a benefit for something that you’ve earned can seem unfair to those who have served.”

Among changes that take effect Aug. 1 is an update that makes post-9/11 Purple Heart recipients eligible for full GI Bill benefits for up to three years. Another alteration will allow veterans to get nine additional months of post-9/11 benefits if they are pursuing a degree in science, technology, engineering or math, according to the VA.

Although the changes have been celebrated by vets, some fear they could do more damage than good, in part because of a host of problems that have plagued the VA in recent years. Long wait times became the subject of a 2014 scandal and more recently the VA has been scrutinized for overpaying benefits to veterans and then demanding those vets pay them back thousands of dollars.

“The VA needs to get this transition right and we’ll be watching closely to make sure they have the resources and authorities they need to get our veterans their hard-earned benefits,” said Emmalee Kalmbach, press secretary to Sen. Rob Portman.

Concerns that the changes could overwhelm the VA emerged late last month, prompting Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas to introduce a bill to head off potential processing issues.

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The “Servicemembers Improved Transition through Reforms for Ensuring Progress Act” would prohibit colleges from charging vets late fees and denying them access to classes because of delays in processing GI benefits, according to a release from the senators.

“I appreciate the hard work VA does for veterans every day, and VA officials should continue working with the Administration and Congress to do whatever it takes to ensure these changes are implemented quickly and effectively to get veterans the benefits they deserve,” Sen. Sherrod Brown said in a statement.

The Story So Far

• Then: Trump signed the Colmery Act, which made several changes to GI Bill benefits, in February. Some changes went into effect right away.

• Now: U.S. Senators have expressed concern that the changes scheduled to take effect on Aug. 1 could cause problems at the VA because of the department’s recent issues.

• Next: On Aug 1, 14 changes will take effect including expanding GI Bill benefits for post-9/11 Purple Heart recipients to three years.

To implement changes to GI Bill benefits, the VA has had to make several updates to its IT systems and internal processes while also retraining staff, both Kalmbach and Watkins said. The VA has also offered several training sessions for school officials who will be the ones working directly with vets on college campuses, Watkins said.

While the VA’s past problems have raised concern in the U.S. Senate, they’ve also prompted proactive measures.

The Colmery Act purposefully rolled out alterations gradually instead of all at once. Six changes went into effect right away, then another one was implemented in January and 14 will go into effect on Aug. 1.

“They’re doing it more incrementally,” Watkins said. “I think that they’re looking at it a little bit wiser now and giving themselves time.”

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