So much for the Obama administration’s effort to “close the IT gap” with the private sector.
Four years ago, the Veterans Affairs Department touted plans for an automated processing system to expedite the claims of veterans going to school under the Post-9/11 GI Bill. The VA estimated that the state- of- the- art IT system would cost $130 million, with much of the work outsourced to the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Atlantic in Charleston, S.C.
Today, the VA is nowhere near completion of the system – with much of the processing of paperwork still being handled manually – and the price tag has doubled to $263 million. And student veteran groups say they are still experiencing major delays in getting their checks for tuition, housing, food and books.
Roger Baker, the VA’s assistant secretary for information and technology, told a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee last week the automated system still requires “significant development efforts” and probably an additional $4 million of spending overall.He acknowledged that the system, which has an annual operating budget of $18.7 million, still must process some claims manually, which slows down the process and frequently leads to delays.
Hayleigh Perez, an Army veteran and vice president of the Student Veterans Advocacy Group, told the subcommittee she waited months to receive her G.I. Bill funds to pay for graduate school despite repeated calls to the VA and resubmitting claims multiple times. Even so, Perez said her experience was nothing compared to some of her fellow veterans who waited up to five months to have their claims processed.
Perez said that many student veterans have to dip into their own funds to cover educational and housing costs until they finally receive their checks from the VA, and in a few extreme cases is leading to “life-altering” consequences including veteran homelessness.
VA officials say they are still working on making the system more efficient, adding that processing the Post-9/11 G.I. bill is more complex than its predecessor, the Montgomery G.I. Bill, because it gives students direct payments for housing and books, but sends tuition payments directly to the universities.
“In the 21st century, in this technological world that we live in, it’s kind of difficult for us to understand that there is no way some sort of algorithm or system can process these claims in an adequate manner,” said Michael Dakduk, the executive director of Student Veterans of America.
Baker said the VA recognizes that it needs to improve its processing system. He added that unlike a private company like Amazon that can simply change its business rules, government agencies are constrained by legislation, which makes changing the way they do things a much longer process.
“There’s a huge difference between the way the government does these things and the way the private sector does,” Baker said.
Most would agree.