GI Benefits In Limbo

GI Benefits In Limbo

If you have been attempting to use your GI Benefits lately, you might already know what thousands of Veterans are finding out – your GI Benefits just aren’t coming.

In a technological glitch and resulting nightmare, the VA is experiencing a huge backlog which started after President Trump’s signing of the Forever GI Bill last year. The 2017 legislation expanded benefits for Veterans and their families. However, with bill did not provide for a change in the system infrastructure. The result? A technological bottleneck that has delayed payments to recipients across the country. Initially, the VA was given until August 1, 2018 to put the 34 new provisions in place. That deadline was missed but the promise to hit a mid-August deadline was made. This goal was also missed.

During this week’s Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing, Senator Johnny Isakson (R- GA) had the following to say:

“The changes that should’ve been made in information technology weren’t made. The checks and balances we have built into the system weren’t followed.”“It’s come to my attention that the [VA] has screwed up accountability and responsibility for a Forever GI Bill benefit. The changes that should’ve been made in information technology weren’t made. The checks and balances we have built into the system weren’t followed.”

The checks and balances weren’t followed and the results are nearly catastrophic.

According to the VA, at least 82,000 recipients are currently awaiting housing payments. While that number is astronomical, the true number of impacted Americans is unknown. It is estimated that the number is actually in the hundreds of thousands. All involved parties agree that this non-partisan issue needs to be rectified, Representative Phil Roe (R – TN), the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has been quoted as saying “this is, to be kind, a train wreck.” The train wreck continues to take out more collateral damage with every passing day as an increasing number of Veterans find themselves in dire straits without the benefits that they have been promised and were expecting.

While the VA has acknowledged the problem, which first began rearing its ugly head this past summer, there is no concrete or conclusive plan in place to actually fix the debacle. Worse yet, VA officials were warned by advocates and lawmakers that this would happen prior to the system collapse.

Dr. Paul R. Lawrence, top-ranking benefits’ official for the VA, appeared in front of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday and obviously struggled as he attempted to explain the situation and lack of progress. Estimates have been provided previously and remain unmet. At this time, Lawrence claimed the previous timetables were a “mistake” and the VA had no current estimate for when the technological issues might be resolved.

While outdated technology is plaguing the VA in their fulfillment of GI Benefits, it is nearly destroying Veterans who are supposed to be supported by those benefits. With just weeks left to the fall semester, many Veterans find themselves crippled with unexpected housing and academic costs. Heartbreaking stories of Veterans in crisis at the hands of the GI BIll program are popping out of the woodwork every day.

Dan Gorman, former sailor and NY National Guardsman is just one of those stories. Gorman was scheduled to graduate in May 2019, but with the current delays crippling his finances, that goal seems less and less likely every day.

“I can’t afford rent. I can’t afford groceries. It’s a lot of emotional strain and aggravation,” said Gorman.
According to Curt Cashour, VA Press Secretary, the VA has implemented 28 of the 34 changes. However, housing and tuition and reimbursement were not two of them and no estimate was given for when the remaining changes would be completed.

The most unfortunate twist in this mishap is that the VA failed to notify students of the potential pitfalls, even after they were aware. Students, like Gorman and many others, have been waiting for their checks to arrive – but they never do. Given that two of the major changes that have not been rolled out are those that impact living allowances and tuitions, Veterans find themselves unable to afford both school and day-to-day survival.
According to the VA, an additional 200 IT-based employees have been added to staff to assist with the remaining rollouts. The VA has had a year to complete the required IT upgrades and is now nearly four months past the original due date. While the additional staff and pressure from the House may help push the project to completion, it is of little consolation for those Veterans who find themselves being forced to give up their education.

The VA’s GI Bill Hotline is 888-GIBill-1 and the White House VA Hotline is 855-948-2311. If you or someone you know has received an incorrect disbursement, is missing a stipend or reimbursement, please contact these hotlines for assistance.

Errors in Housing Payments for Some GI Bill Students

Errors in Housing Payments for Some GI Bill Students

Errors in Housing Payments for Some GI Bill Students

Contributed by Debbie Gregory

Some 340,000 students using the education benefit of the GI Bill were shorted in their Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) in the month of August.

The new version of the GI Bill states that the amount students receive for their housing allowance each month should be based on where they take the most classes. The old version of the bill calculated that amount based on the location of the school’s main campus.

Either way, the calculations are equivalent to what an E-5 active-duty personnel with dependents would receive, and due to a technology issue, the VA was delayed in implementing the change.

A VA spokesperson said that the department is still working on the remaining technology updates and was in the process of preparing to notify students about the impact to their payments.

So when the fall semester started, student veterans received their BAH based on the previous system and the previous calendar year.

“Many of the benefits that (the Forever GI Bill) ensures have already been implemented; however it’s troubling to me that VA still has not yet finalized the IT systems needed to fully implement the law, despite having a year to do so,” said Rep. Phil Roe, chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, whose Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity has held two hearings on the implementation of the bill.

Fifteen veterans groups penned a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie charging the VA of not being upfront about the problems, calling it “an organizational and customer service failure at the highest level.”

“It took several weeks into the current semester before any communication was sent to students, and schools have received little information beyond, ‘wait and see,’” their letter reads. “Transparency on what to expect and when to expect it, from all levels of leadership at VA, is critical to helping students and schools make informed decisions.”

GI Benefits and YOU

GI Benefits and YOU

GI Benefits and YOU

 

Contributed by Kris Baydalla-Galasso

It is “back to school” season across the country. Our college campuses are getting ready to welcome a new crop of freshmen students with open arms – and some are getting ready to welcome our military veterans into the ranks of their student body. Unavoidably, the cost of a four-year degree is on the rise. While there are a host of private grants, scholarships and financing available – active military, select reservists and National Guard members earn education benefits that will help make a post-service education more affordable.

Depending on where you attend school, your GI Benefits might just cover all of your expenses. For example, if you are attending a public college or university, you can expect to have your tuition covered and paid directly to your school. Additionally, the post 9/11 GI Bill provides a monthly housing allowance as well as an annual supply allowance.

In order to qualify for GI Benefits, you need to have served at least two years of active duty and have completed high school (or have a HS equivalency certificate). During your first year of active duty, your contribution needs to be $100 per month. You can also quality under VEAP (Veteran’s Educational Assistance Program). Once you have served and contributed the minimum to qualify, you are eligible to apply for benefits through the VA. Your initial application may take as long as 10 weeks, so allowing for enough time is critical.

Everyone’s life path is different – so while some soldiers look to enroll as soon as they are no longer serving, some may have other plans in mind. The GI Bill protects these plans as well, as veterans have 15 years to apply for benefits after their most recent period of active duty. Once your application is submitted, your benefits will cover up to your first 36 months of school.

There are so many options when expanding an education. Some higher learning institutions pride themselves on working with military personnel and veterans. St. Bonaventure University in New York boasts a strong ROTC program – but it also makes it easy for active personnel to put a degree on hold to serve overseas.  Columbia Southern University in Alabama boasts an extensive selection of online degree programs as well as open enrollment, catering to the hectic schedules and unpredictable nature of military scheduling.

Colorado State University has a devoted team of advisors dedicated to assisting military personnel and veterans. So much that they even have a special “Military and Veteran Student Visit Day” next month. Drexel, in Philadelphia, PA, has a unbeatable online degree and course offering. Don’t forget to check out Touro University Worldwide – an online program that makes obtaining a degree easier for those of us who need to move around.

Between the GI Benefits and the institutions who are actively trying to work with veterans, now is a fantastic time to start a pursuit of a degree!

Limiting GI Bill Transfer Plan – Is It Fair?

Limiting GI Bill Transfer Plan – Is It Fair

Limiting GI Bill Transfer Plan – Is It Fair?

By Debbie Gregory.

 

The Defense Department’s new rules on transferring GI Bill benefits to dependents have House members demanding a reversal to the plan, with 83 lawmakers calling the new policy  “unacceptable.”

Last month, the Pentagon said it was curbing the window in which service members could transfer their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to immediate family members.

Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn) who serves on the House Armed Services Committee, led the bipartisan effort to rally members of Congress in opposition.

Previously, military members could transfer benefits at any time, as long as they had at least six years of service. Under the new rules, set to take effect next July, they will need to not only meet the six-year benchmark, but also be approved to serve four additional years and to have completed fewer than 16 years of service.

The lawmakers penned a letter to defense Secretary James Mattis late last month, saying “Eliminating the ability to transfer Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to family members after honorably completing 16 years of service sends exactly the wrong message to those who have chosen the military as their long-term career, and sets a dangerous precedent for the removal of other critical benefits as members approach military retirement.”

They continued, “Once a service member meets the requirements for transferring Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to an eligible family member, we must uphold our end of the commitment. This change in policy is unacceptable, and we call upon you to swiftly reverse this decision.”

The Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and the American Legion have joined in, criticizing the change.

The American Legion opposes “the curtailment of veterans’ earned benefits,” said Legion spokesman retired Lt. Col. Joe Plenzler. “We understand the minimum time-in-service for transferability eligibility, and that makes sense from a retention perspective, but the 16-year transfer or lose rule makes no sense to us as DOD has articulated it and disadvantages the veteran when it comes to the use of this earned benefit,” Plenzler said.

The Pentagon says more than $20 billion in education benefits has been passed to service members and dependents since the Post-9/11 GI Bill was passed in 2009.

 

IRRRL Facts for Veterans

homeowner

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is often praised for the education benefits given to those who have served. But just as important, the VA strives to help servicemembers, veterans, and eligible surviving spouses obtain veteran home loans so that they may become homeowners.

An Interest Rate Reduction Refinancing Loan (IRRRL), often referred to as a “Streamline” or a “VA to VA” loan is a great option for providing veteran home loans.

A VA veteran loan provides a home loan guaranty benefit and other housing related programs to help buy, build, repair, retain, or adapt a home for personal occupancy. These loans are obtained through private lenders such as banks and mortgage companies. The VA guarantees a portion of the loan, enabling the lender to provide more favorable terms.

Except when refinancing an existing VA guaranteed adjustable rate mortgage to a fixed rate, it must result in a lower interest rate. When refinancing from an existing adjustable veteran home loan to a fixed rate, the interest rate may increase.

To decide whether it is beneficial to refinance your veteran home loan, the general rule of thumb is that if you can refinance and reduce your interest rate by 1% then it is something worth considering. However, it’s important to consider other factors, such as closing costs and how long you plan on living in the property.

An IRRRL may be done with “no money out of pocket” by including all costs in the new loan or by making the new loan at an interest rate high enough to enable the lender to pay the costs, but you must NOT receive any cash from the loan proceeds.

The occupancy requirement for an IRRRL is different from other VA veteran home loans. When you originally got your VA loan, you certified that you occupied or intended to occupy the home. For an IRRRL you need only certify that you previously occupied it. The loan may not exceed the sum of the outstanding balance on the existing VA loan, plus allowable fees and closing costs, including funding fee and up to two discount points.  You may also add up to $6,000 of energy efficiency improvements into the loan.

One more thing to keep in mind is that an IRRRL can only be made to refinance a property on which you have already used your VA loan eligibility. It must be a VA to VA refinance, and it will reuse the entitlement you originally used.

Lenders are not required to make you an IRRRL, however, the lender of your choice may process your application for an IRRRL, and you do not have to go to the lender you make your payments to now or to the lender from whom you originally obtained your VA Loan.

Also keep in mind that the ability to reduce the term of your loan from 30 years to 15 years can save you a lot of money in interest over the life of the loan, if the reduction in the interest rate is at least one percent lower. But this will more than likely result in a large increase in your monthly payment.

Veterans are strongly urged to contact several lenders. There may be big differences in the terms offered by the various lenders you contact.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Some of the Challenges Facing Student Veterans

student veteran

By Debbie Gregory.

Military veteran benefits such as the Montgomery GI Bill, the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and now the Forever GI Bill, have enabled education for veterans by paying for expenses such as tuition, textbooks, and housing.

With those obstacles out of the way, there are still some challenges for veterans that are transitioning from the military to veteran education programs.

Gone is the military ranking system. Gone is the brotherhood. Gone is the sense of working towards the successful outcome of a shared mission. What remains, for most, is the drive towards personal, individual success, which may be confusing for some veteran students.

Additionally, since veteran students tend to be older than their civilian counterparts, they have not only had different life experiences, but they also have different life obligations, which may include spouses, children, mortgages, etc.

Another difference is that many veteran students have witnessed or experienced the horrors of war, and may be suffering from mental or physical issues.

So what can be done to support these students in order to improve their chances of success?

The VA Campus Toolkit offers tips on what faculty, staff, administrators and students can do to help veteran students.

A community site for veterans to gather on campus can empower students to share information, respond to one another’s needs, and relieve stress while providing a venue for veterans to discuss shared concerns.

Having a chapter of Student Veterans of America or a Veterans Resource Center on campus offers a safe haven for veteran students, without them having to overshare their veteran status.

Removing obstacles and red tape can go a long way towards student retention and in the reputation of your institution as a military-friendly campus.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Paychecks Reflecting 2018 Raise Going Out January 15th

pay day

By Debbie Gregory.

The first paychecks for servicemembers reflecting the 2.4 percent pay raise will be going out on January 15th. The raise is part of the National Defense Authorization Act.

This was only the second time since 2010 that the pay raise has topped 2 percent.  It was 2.1 percent last January.

The increase will put an additional $680 in the wallets of younger enlisted ranks, and about $1,080 a year for more senior enlisted and junior officers. Mid-career officers can expect almost $2,000 a year extra.

The 2.4 percent figure is also the mark mandated as the standard pay raise under federal law.

Government employee unions had argued for pay parity between the military and federal workers, but President Trump ordered an average raise of 1.4 percent, with an additional average of 0.5 percent adjusted in locality pay, for a total of a 1.9 percent pay increase for federal civilian employee, which was also effective January 1st.

The 2018 Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rate increase will see on average a .7 percent increase, but falls far short of the 2.9 percent that was proposed.

TRICARE Standard and Extra will become TRICARE Select, and there will be changes to copay amounts and pharmacy prices. But probably the biggest change in 2018 involves the military retirement system. The Blended Retirement System (BRS) blends a fixed pension system like the military has always had, with a user-contributory system, the Thrift Savings Plan.

Service members with less than 12 years active duty on Jan. 1, 2018 will have a limited time to decide if they want the new system or an older one. New military members will be automatically enrolled in the BRS.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Pentagon Plans Changes to Post-9/11 GI Bill Transferability

post

By Debbie Gregory.

While most people know that the GI Bill is administered and paid for through the Department of Veterans Affairs, what most people probably don’t know is that the Defense Department controls the transferability of the benefit. And the DoD is planning some changes to that transferability.

The transferability option under the Post-9/11 GI Bill allows servicemembers to transfer all or some unused benefits to their spouse or dependent children. Current GI Bill policy allows service members with at least six years of service to transfer their benefits to a dependent, provided they agree to serve four more.

The request to transfer unused GI Bill benefits to eligible dependents must be completed while servicing as an active member of the Armed Forces.

Anthony Kurta, currently the acting deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the department intends to issue a policy change affecting the transferability of benefits, which will be limited to service members with less than 16 years of total service.

The addition of a cap to one aspect of the GI Bill doesn’t sit well with veterans who recently fought for a provision in the new Forever GI Bill that lifted a 15-year time limit on the benefit.

“As a matter of principle, the American Legion is against anything that would degrade a veteran’s current benefit,” said American Legion spokesman Joe Plenzler.

With that said, as the transferability only applies to active duty servicemembers, this change should have no impact on veterans.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

VA Faces Challenges to Implement “Forever” GI Bill

forever gi bill snip

By Debbie Gregory.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has said it is facing problems implementing some parts of the Harry J Colmery GI Bill, better known as the “Forever GI Bill”.

Recently separated veterans may be getting inaccurate information about their education benefits in the mail, potentially causing “mass confusion” among veterans about their eligibility due to outdated IT systems, Veterans Affairs officials admitted.

The Forever GI Bill, which was signed into law in August, not only removes the 15 year time limitation that newer veterans have to use their GI Bill, but it also gives back GI Bill entitlement to some veterans who were in schools that closed mid-term. The new regulation gives back any GI Bill that was used to take classes that resulted in no academic credit due to no fault of the veteran. This part of the law is retroactive to 2015 and affects over 8,000 veterans.

Although the VA has reached out to veterans eligible for this benefit, only about 250 of the affected veterans have applied for the restoration of their GI Bill.

Additionally, it extends benefit eligibility to more guard and reserve members, and it creates a new program for STEM students in addition to 30 other changes.

To meet the goals of launching the program, the VA will and spend some $70 million and hire 200 temporary workers to manually process claims until they can get their software changes implemented.

The VA is trying to avoid encountering problems like those that occurred back when the Post-9/11 GI Bill began in 2009. At that time, the VA got so backlogged in making payments they were forced to issue emergency checks of up to $3,000 to veterans who had waited months for their GI Bill payments.

The Forever GI Bill contains the most sweeping expansion of veterans education benefits in a decade. Most of the bill’s provisions go into effect Aug. 1, 2018.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.

Can Military Dependents be Forced to Repay Their Parents’ GI Bill

old gibill

Debbie Gregory.

While the Post-9/11 GI Bill offers a very generous post-service education benefit, a special provision allows career service members the opportunity to share their education benefits with immediate family members. The Post 9/11 GI Bill is the only one which allows transferring education benefits.

Transferring GI Bill benefits to a dependent can be done once they’ve served at least six years in the military, with the caveat that they agree to serve a further four years.

But what happens when someone is involuntarily separated from the military before they’ve satisfied that requirement?

If a servicemember fails to complete that obligation, it’s as if the entire eligibility was wiped out, and the VA has to recoup all the benefits that have been paid out.

The Government Accountability Office reported that in fiscal year 2014, one in four GI Bill beneficiaries was hit with a bill for overpayments.

This amounted to $416 million owed by beneficiaries.

Military Connection salutes and proudly serves veterans and service members in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, Guard and Reserve,  and their families.