Bipartisan lawmakers call for investigation into VA amid issues with GI Bill benefit payments

Bipartisan lawmakers call for investigation into VA amid issues with GI Bill benefit payments
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A bipartisan group of senators and a member of the House called for the Department of Veterans Affairs's (VA) inspector general to investigate allegations that the department would not reimburse veterans for missed or underpaid benefits under the Forever GI Bill.

Sens. John BoozmanJohn Nichols BoozmanVA chief pressed on efforts to prevent veteran suicides McConnell ups pressure on White House to get a budget deal There is a severe physician shortage and it will only worsen MORE (R-Ark.) and Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzDem senator describes 'overcrowded quarters,' 'harsh odor' at border facilities Warren introduces bill targeted at food insecurity on college campuses On The Money: Senators unload on Facebook cryptocurrency | Tech giants on defensive at antitrust hearing | Democrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses MORE (D-Hawaii), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, signed the letter along with five Democratic and three Republican senators, as well as one Democratic congressman.

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“When I brought the issue of GI Bill underpayments up to [VA] Secretary [Robert] Wilkie during a hearing in September, he acknowledged the VA’s error and promised that all affected recipients would be compensated," Boozman wrote.

"When recent news reports suggested the VA was not acting to help veterans who have been shortchanged, the department outlined its plans to remedy the situation. Those plans fall short," he continued. "These veterans must be fully repaid for errors they did not cause and that is what I expect the VA to do.”

“Secretary Wilkie may be saying the right things, but until the VA invests money to address the ongoing staffing and IT challenges facing the claims backlog, our veterans will remain robbed of the benefits they were promised,” Schatz added. “I expect the Secretary to come up with a plan so that the VA can audit and process retroactive payments for underpaid or missed claims. And I look forward to the Inspector General helping us hold him accountable to that plan.”

The letter comes after reports earlier this week that committee aides told congressional staffers the VA would not repay veterans without auditing past education claims, which, they said, would hold up future claims. Hundreds of thousands of veterans had reportedly received smaller GI Bill benefit payments than they were owed after computer problems delayed GI Bill payments.

The issue first arose after GI Bill payments were delayed due to a change in calculating housing allowances under the Forever GI Bill, which President TrumpDonald John TrumpChelsea Clinton announces birth of third child Ukrainian officials and Giuliani are sharing back-channel campaign information: report Trump attacks 'the Squad' as 'racist group of troublemakers' MORE signed into law last year. The VA computers were reportedly unable to process the change, quickly leading to an immense backlog of veterans' claims.

Because of the backlog, the department announced earlier Wednesday that it would delay the bill’s housing allowance changes until next year, while also pledging that veterans who received incorrect GI Bill benefit payments would eventually be paid the correct amount.

Committee aides, however, said VA officials told Capitol Hill staffers on Wednesday that the department will not retroactively reimburse underpaid veterans due to the housing miscalculations once the system is fixed next year.

The VA then released a statement Thursday saying it would rectify the issue and pushing back on reports that the agency did not plan to reimburse those who were underpaid.

“Each and every Veteran on the post-9/11 GI Bill will be made 100 percent whole — retroactively if need be — for their housing benefits for this academic year based on the current uncapped DoD rates,” VA spokesman Curtis Cashour said in a statement to The Hill on Thursday morning. 

"[A]nd, beginning in spring 2020, we [will] be in a position to provide Veterans the new rates where applicable to meet the law known as the Forever GI Bill," he added.

In their letter, lawmakers claimed that the VA's "continued ambiguity" over the payments threatened "to erode" veterans' confidence in the institution.

“The VA’s continued ambiguity about whether it will fulfill this legal requirement threatens to erode our veterans’ confidence in the VA’s ability to deliver promised care and benefits and demands close oversight and accountability,” they wrote. “It is important that VA fix the technical and staffing shortages that contributed to its inability to implement the Forever GI bill so that it can continue to provide housing stipends to veterans.”

The letter calls for an investigation into whether the VA intends to apply the Aug. 1, 2018, housing stipend rates for retroactive payments to eligible beneficiaries, under what legal authority the VA would withhold retroactive payments based on the rates required in the Forever GI Bill, and how and when the VA will process retroactive repayments to eligible veterans. 

Rep. Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoSteyer group targeting 12 congressional Democrats over impeachment ICE does not know how many veterans it has deported, watchdog says The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by Pass USMCA Coalition — Trump: GOP has `clear contrast' with Dems on immigration MORE (D-Calif.) also sent the VA a letter Friday, along with 24 Democratic members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, seeking answers on how the Department seeks to resolve the issue.