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thedrifter
11-19-08, 11:15 AM
Vets Welcome Better GI Bill, Officials Worry VA Can't Handle Claims

Wednesday, November 19, 2008 :: infoZine Staff

By Amanda Peterson -

Justin Payne would start his senior year at the University of Maryland next fall $8,000 deeper in debt if not for increased GI Bill education benefits.

Washington, D.C. - Scripps Howard Foundation Wire - infoZine - Payne, 24, a junior business major, said he racked up $42,000 in student loans during two years at Jacksonville University in Florida.

"Finally I was, like, enough with school, I want to do something fun for a while," said Payne, of Westminster, Md. He spent four years in the Marines, both to serve in the military and for money to pay for college, he said.

While serving in Iraq and still paying off the debt, Payne said he caught an interview on Fox News in which Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., talked about an updated GI Bill of Rights he was pushing that would increase education benefits for veterans.

Because the additional benefits will not begin until next year, Payne said he took out an $8,000 student loan to pay for his first year at Maryland because his GI benefits and military scholarships from the state of Maryland did not cover all the costs.

Along with other veterans at colleges and universities, Payne said he will welcome the additional money to pay for school. Some officials worry the Department of Veterans Affairs will not be prepared to handle the more complicated benefits system that will begin in August.

Keith Wilson, director of education services for the VA, said in an interview that this new plan will be a fundamental change in the way the department distributes benefits.

"We've sent out monthly benefit payments based on training time since the Korean War," Wilson said. "If that check did not cover their costs, then it was up to that individual to pay for the rest of their education."

The new program will lead to much more paperwork, Wilson said, and it will need more oversight to make sure different checks are sent to the schools and veterans.

Under the current Montgomery GI Bill, veterans receive a monthly stipend to pay for college costs for 36 months while enrolled as a student.

Starting Aug. 1, the VA will send a check directly to schools to pay for veterans' tuition, up to the highest public university tuition in that state. Veterans will also receive monthly stipends to cover living costs, ranging from $800 to $2,600 based on where they live.

And the Webb GI Bill includes a provision that allows some members of the military to transfer education benefits they do not use to their spouses or children, adding another layer Wilson said the VA has not had to handle before.

Some members of Congress question if the VA will be prepared to start this program on Aug. 1, especially after officials announced the VA will partner with military agencies to create the automated system to handle benefits claims rather than use a private company.

At a House Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing Tuesday, Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D., said the committee will follow the department's progress into the next legislative session.

Sandlin asked who would make sure the VA met its milestones.

Wilson said an executive board would oversee the program, and the VA will rely on some automated programs. Officials expect more than 500,000 claims, he said.

The VA will receive all of its information about veterans from the Defense Department, and Wilson said the first test file will be sent this week.

Even with the small tests to check the system, Rep. John Boozman, R-Ark., questioned how the VA would be prepared to have a new system running by August without private contractors.

"Are you going to phase it in a little bit rather than just starting one day?" Boozman asked. "Is there a plan rather than going from nothing to having these 400,000 or 500,000 individuals?"

Wilson said the VA will start making the transition to the system over the summer, but no payments can be sent before Aug. 1. Starting in next month, he said the department will hire additional employees to handle the increasing paperwork.

No matter the computer system and additional employees, Payne said the benefits are worth it for student veterans.

"I won't have to worry about paying for my housing for food costs," Payne said. "I'm not going to be owing money for next year. I won't need any loans whatsoever after this."

Ellie