(Washington, D.C.) – Today, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Patty Murray and Ranking Member Senator Richard Burr sent a joint letter to Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Eric K. Shinseki calling for a full accounting of steps that have been taken or are being taken in response to a Government Accountability Office report that found several shortcomings with implementation of the Post-9/11 GI bill.
The full text of the Senators’ letter is below:
The Honorable Eric Shinseki
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20420
As the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, we are writing with regard to the May 5, 2011, report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), entitled “Veterans’ Education Benefits: Enhanced Guidance and Collaboration Could Improve Administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill Program.” In that report, GAO identified a number of issues that arose when VA implemented the Post-9/11 GI Bill during the fall of 2009.
In part, GAO found that VA’s information technology systems were not adequate to efficiently process claims for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits; VA did not accurately project the level of staffing that would be needed; and the guidance provided to schools and students about the new program was unclear and untimely. According to GAO, during the fall of 2009, it took twice as long as VA’s goal to process original claims for these benefits and more than 4.5 million telephone calls to the Education Call Center never reached a VA representative. In addition, GAO found that the measures VA took to address the backlog of education claims had unintended consequences. For example, employees diverted from the Compensation and Pension Service to process education claims could not help reduce VA’s backlog of disability claims.
Also, GAO pointed out that, with the implementation of this new program, the volume of improper payments of education benefits increased from about $66 million in 2009 to over $700 million in 2010. With regard to overpayments sent directly to schools, GAO noted that VA’s practice is to have schools return those funds to the students and then rely on the students to return the funds to VA. However, GAO found that “collecting funds from about 365,000 students rather than over 8,500 schools is less efficient,” that this practice may add to VA’s workload, and that students might not return the funds to VA for a variety of reasons.
In light of GAO’s findings, and in view of the fact that VA will be implementing significant changes to the Post-9/11 GI Bill during the fall of 2011, we want to ensure that VA is prepared to provide education benefits in a timely, hassle-free manner while making these changes. We also want to ensure that veterans and their family members who are seeking other VA benefits and services will not be adversely affected by those efforts. It is also important that VA have in place appropriate procedures for safeguarding taxpayer funds.
To that end, we request that you provide the Committee with a comprehensive overview of the steps that have been or will be taken to address each of the administrative issues identified by GAO, including those related to information technology, staffing, and guidance to stakeholders. In addition, we ask that you outline VA’s contingency plans in case the processing of education claims again becomes delayed. Finally, we ask that you provide an assessment of what actions could be taken -- by VA, schools, students, or Congress -- to reduce the volume of improper payments of education benefits and to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of efforts to recoup any overpaid funds.
Thank you for your prompt attention to these important matters. We look forward to continuing our work with you to improve VA’s administration of the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
U.S. Senator Patty Murray
Chairman Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee
U.S. Senator Richard Burr
Ranking Member Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee