Veterans face delays when applying for education benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), making it more difficult for them to receive an education after leaving the military, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report revealed last week.
The report, issued Wednesday, showed that veterans lack information on the timeline for receiving their GI benefits and face a backlogged call center at the Department of Veterans Affairs when they have questions, on top of delays in actually receiving the benefits.
The report comes as the VA has come under heavy fire for the massive backlog in veteran disability claims.
It took the VA 31 days on average to process a new application for GI benefits under the post-9/11 GI bill in fiscal year 2012, 8 days longer than the VA’s goal, while it took the VA 17 days to process benefit payment claims, 5 days longer than the VA’s target.
"Student veterans in most focus groups and most school officials told us that VA’s delayed processing of education benefit payments can create or exacerbate financial challenges for student veterans as they begin their postsecondary education," the GAO wrote.
Some veterans had to take on personal debt to cover the shortfall while they waited for the VA to process their claims. Others received threats of eviction or had their utilities cut off. Some even dropped out altogether because of the delays.
Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and an outspoken critic of the VA, was not surprised by the report.
"It’s another example of VA not being able to deliver on what it says," he said. The VA’s performance would be "utterly unacceptable" in the private sector, Hegseth said.
While the delays for GI benefits are causing problems, they are not nearly as bad as the backlog in disability claims, Hegseth said.
Of the nearly 900,000 pending disability claims, nearly 600,000 are backlogged, meaning they have been waiting for over 125 days. The average wait time is between 270 and 330 days, depending on how you calculate the figure, while the number of backlogged claims has risen by 2,000 percent since 2009, Hegseth said.
The report also noted other problems veterans face when trying to receive their GI benefits.
"VA offers little information about its benefit processing times and housing allowance policies and leaves student veterans unprepared to deal with the financial consequence of payment delays and prorated housing allowance payments during school breaks," the report said.
The VA call center can become massively backlogged, the report revealed.
Of the 6.1 million incoming calls to the VA’s call center in fiscal 2012, 38 percent were blocked because the system was incapable of handling them, while 22 percent of the calls that made it through were ultimately abandoned. The problems peaked in October 2012, when about twice as many calls were blocked as made it through to the system.
The chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee was unsurprised by the problems.
"GAO’s report confirms what we’ve heard time and time again during multiple hearings: insufficient automation as well as confusing and contradictory policy guidance are causing Post-9/11 GI Bill recipients unnecessary hardships," said Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.).
Miller pledged to monitor the VA's progress as it addressed the challenges outlined by the GAO report.
The VA agreed with all of the GAO’s recommendations and noted in the report that some have already been implemented. The VA is on track to implement the other recommendations, a spokesman said.
The VA took issue with the report’s stinging criticism in its response at the end of the report.
"The report spends considerable time focusing on delayed payments to Veterans and difficulty reaching someone at the Education Call Center but little time acknowledging the progress VA has made in both of these areas," the VA wrote, referring to its April 2013 statistics. "The average processing time for original and supplemental education claims is now 19 days and 6 days, respectively, and the average wait time at the Education Call Center is less than 2 minutes."
The GAO attributed the VA’s improvements to its implementation of automating technology that reduced the workload for operators. It also noted that the real test of the automated systems would come when students are enrolling in classes in the fall.