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 BoozmanThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus Artistic Director Tim Seelig says choirs are dangerous; Pence says, 'We have saved lives' 7 GOP senators slam State Dept for 'slow and inefficient policy' on passports The Hill's Coronavirus Report: National Portrait Gallery's Kim Sajet says this era rewiring people's relationship with culture, art; Trump's war with Twitter heats up MORE (R-Ark.) and Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzOvernight Defense: Lawmakers demand answers on reported Russian bounties for US troops deaths in Afghanistan | Defense bill amendments target Germany withdrawal, Pentagon program giving weapons to police Senators push to limit transfer of military-grade equipment to police Hillicon Valley: Justice Department announces superseding indictment against WikiLeaks' Assange | Facebook ad boycott gains momentum | FBI sees spike in coronavirus-related cyber threats | Boston city government bans facial recognition technology 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 TrumpProtesters tear down statue of Christopher Columbus in Baltimore 'Independence Day' star Bill Pullman urges Americans to wear a 'freedom mask' in July 4 PSA Protesters burn American flag outside White House after Trump's July Fourth address 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 TakanoThe Hill's Coronavirus Report: Rep. Rodney Davis says most important thing White House can do on COVID-19 is give consistent messaging; US new cases surpass 50k for first time The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Stagwell President Mark Penn says Trump is losing on fighting the virus; Fauci says U.S. 'going in the wrong direction' in fight against virus The Hill's Coronavirus Report: Cure Violence Global founder Gary Slutkin says violence and epidemics follow same patterns; Global death toll surpasses half a million 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.