Veteran's GI Bill payments are a huge train wreck

Veteran's GI Bill payments are a huge train wreck
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catch-22 is defined as a paradoxical, no-win situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules and absurd bureaucratic constraints.

The events leaving up to the hearing on VA GI Bill payment delays put VA’s Director of Education Service General Robert Worley in a classic catch-22 situation. He seemingly had two options: report the delays due to an antiquated IT system in real time and be chastised for inability to fix them; or do not report the errors in real time and be chastised for not bringing the issue to light earlier or asking for more resources.


Of course, in an ideal world, the answer would simply be that a good leader would avoid the situation entirely by fixing the problem within the parameters provided and thus there would be no problem to report. However, in reality, nothing about working at the VA is ideal. Despite the Trump administration’s best efforts to tout its VA modernization efforts, the department is still sorely lacking in a much-needed cultural modernization effort.

Worley’s reassignment from VA central office to the regional office in Houston, Texas, highlights an ongoing problem with VA leadership, accountability and oversight. Despite the passage of several key pieces of legislation directly targeted at improving all of these things — to include the VA Accountability Act — VA is doing what it has always done in the face of adversity: reshuffling leadership when there is a problem, instead of directly addressing the problem.

And to a certain extent VA’s strategy has worked. In the aftermath of the hearing, many headlines are about Worley’s relocation, rather than VA’s failure to update its IT system. Although there have been headlines about VA’s IT problems as well, VA, in response, has also done what it’s always done — blamed Congress for a lack of funding. They place the blame elsewhere despite the fact that the department received a $12.1 billion increase from the previous fiscal year, including what VA itself touted as “$381 million for development in support of top [information technology] priorities.” 

Apparently, VA does not view veterans currently using GI Bill benefits as a top priority. What's worse, is that VA continues to treat substantive problems such as this one as mere public relations irritants rather than real world problems impacting its core constituency — veterans themselves. The agency must strive to change this.

In this instance, the problems, delayed GI Bill benefit payments to veterans, are serious. As highlighted by the hearing, there is currently a backlog of 73,000 claims, 10,000 of which have been pending between 31 to t60 days and 1,000 of which have been pending for 1,000 days. As a result of the delays, some veterans have faced financial hardship and possible eviction from student housing. 

Problems don’t exist in a vacuum and the problems surrounding the delayed GI Bill payments in question are no exception. The route of the problem stems from legislation that was passed in August 2017, known as the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 (Forever GI Bill). Although the legislation made a number of overdue substantive updates to GI Bill benefits, the legislation did not take into account the need for additional IT updates to go along with it. This was a problem that VA should have reasonably foreseen and planned to address. They did not. 

More importantly, however, like the VA Accountability Act, the Forever GI Bill is legislation that was passed to improve VA programs and benefit veterans. Both pieces of legislation are a classic example, however, of a point I make often in the VA context: legislation is a starting point, not an ending one. While legislation is often a catalyst toward reform, true reform does not take place until those that the law impacts truly accept and embrace it — in other words, when cultural change has happened.

Thus, when Trump makes statements such as “[t]he fact is, I’ve done a lot. I could — goodbye. Goodbye everyone!” in reference to what he’s accomplished at VA, he misses an important point. Yes, he’s done a lot in terms of passing legislation; but he shouldn’t be prepared to move on until those legislative initiatives are seen through to a point of cultural change.

As both political appointees from various administrations and line staff throughout the VA are well aware, cultural change is much more challenging to implement than passing an Act of Congress — which of course is saying something, since passing an Act of Congress takes quite a bit of effort these days as well. 

Instead of reshuffling managers every time Congress turns up the heat on a problem, VA officials would be better served by promoting a truly meaningful culture of transparency. For example, when whistleblowers draw attention to the problem — in this case, line staff raised the issue of the IT system failures months ago listen to those employees and engage them in order to find a productive solution.

Had Worley and VA been transparent about the issue, detailing not only the impending failure but provided specifics about what was needed to fix the issue, including a timeline, in advance of the backlog of claims that built up — yesterday’s hearing could have taken on a very different tone than the one that ensued. 

As summed up in a statement for the hearing record by Patrick Murray, legislative deputy director for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the statements made by VA about its IT system and the payment delays “are wildly inconsistent and show a true breakdown in communication and transparency within the VA.”

Cultural change, particularly within a large government agency takes time and, more importantly, it takes a sizable effort to focus on intangible concepts like accountability and transparency, ideas that, despite our best legislative efforts, have been difficult to define and more difficult to implement. 

In describing the GI Bill situation, Chairman Phil RoeDavid (Phil) Phillip RoeDiana Harshbarger wins GOP primary to replace Rep. Phil Roe We need to focus on veterans in need of service dogs Overnight Defense: Trump plan to pull troops from Germany gets bipartisan pushback | Top GOP senator says it's time to look at changing Confederate-named bases | GOP divided over renaming Army bases MORE (R-Tenn.) stated that it was “to be kind, a train wreck.” Roe is correct, but with an added emphasis on cultural change, rather than convenient PR spins, the VA can successfully pivot from being a train wreck to a joy ride for veterans.

Rory E. Riley-Topping served as a litigation staff attorney for the National Veterans Legal Services Program (NVLSP), where she represented veterans and their survivors before the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims. She also served as the staff director and counsel for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs for former Chairman Jeff MillerJefferson (Jeff) Bingham MillerShould Biden consider a veteran for vice president? We need to focus on veterans in need of service dogs For-profit college debate highlights VA's problematic history of paternalism MORE (R-Fla.). You can find her on Twitter: @RileyTopping.