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Breaking: Finally, Good News from the VA

Education Opportunities, GI Bill, Making the Transition, VJ Exclusive

It’s been a while since I’ve been able to report any genuinely good news from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA). But today, VA released some encouraging numbers – without any accompanying spin – showing that the department has dramatically decreased the time it takes to process requests for GI Bill and other education benefits for returning veteran students.

At a time when this embattled agency continues its attempts to fix its broken disability claims system and reduce the notorious backlog of unprocessed claims, this comes as welcome news.

According to VA, waiting times for veterans requesting GI Bill or other school-related benefits have been cut by nearly 50 percent in the last year. That’s pretty dramatic, and not what you would generally expect to hear from a government agency that is so often mired in red tape.

This positive reduction, which is due in large part to automated technologies implemented in September 2012, was actually achieved despite a 27 percent increase in incoming education claims —  3.4 million in fiscal year 2013 compared to 2.7 million the prior year.

This technology is part of VA’s Post-9/11 GI Bill processing system called “Long Term Solution” (LTS). The Post-9/11 GI Bill, which builds on the legacy of the original GI Bill that was established in 1944 for returning World War II veterans, has been invaluable. It gives Iraq and Afghanistan veterans and their families the same kinds of opportunities to go back to school, find a good job and improve their lives.

Currently, VA is processing initial claims for new students in an average of less than 20 days, and supplemental claims for returning students in less than 8 days, down from 33 days and 16 days respectively since LTS was first fielded.

In other words, it appears that modern technology at VA is actually starting to help veterans, not hinder them. The LTS system for veterans’ education claims is clearly working better than the massive computerized system VA rolled out this past year to handle its massive backlog of disability claims.

As I reported last year for The Daily Beast, VA’s claims crisis was only worsened for a time by the department’s high-tech Veterans Benefits Management System (VBMS) that was intended to streamline the disability claims process. Thankfully, that $500 million computerized system is finally showing signs of progress, but the results aren’t nearly as dramatically positive as LTS is for returning veteran students.

The LTS  technology has more than 1,700 calculations and rules that support benefits delivery. Up to six distinct payments per beneficiary can be calculated automatically per term, including housing, books and supplies stipend, tuition and fees and Yellow Ribbon payments.

In addition, a variety of different types of education and training programs are supported by the automated technology, including: graduate, undergraduate, non-college degree, correspondence, licensing and certification, apprenticeship and on-the-job training.

“We are happy to report that our students are seeing a reduction in the amount of time it takes to process their education claims thanks to an automated, digital process making it easier for veterans, servicemembers and their families to attend post-secondary education and enroll for continuing semesters,” said Under Secretary for Benefits Allison A. Hickey. “This automation has not only improved education benefits processing, it has allowed us to shift resources to other priorities, like improving timeliness of disability compensation decisions. It’s a great example of how technology is helping us to transform the way we do business and better serve Veterans.”

Rep. Michaud, ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, today praised VA for making progress on this important front. “Making sure veterans have timely access to the benefits they’ve earned is critical to their transition to civilian life,” said Michaud in a statement. “It helps them get the education and training they need to take that next step in life. Whether it’s in pursuing graduate school, a certification, or job training, veterans are being well-served by the VA’s advancements in processing claims.”

VA, which has provided more than $35.6 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit payments to more than 1 million veterans and their families and to the universities, colleges, and trade schools they attend, said today in a statement that it will continue to improve education benefits delivery, through “additional automation, tracking of beneficiary graduation rates, and the release of new tools to help beneficiaries best utilize VA education benefits, including the Choosing a School Guide, and CareerScope.”

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Jamie Reno

Jamie Reno, an award-winning correspondent for Newsweek for 20 years, has covered veterans and the military for more than two decades. Reno, who is also an acclaimed author and three-time survivor of stage IV cancer, has also written for The Daily Beast, New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, People, ESPN, Los Angeles Times, TV Guide, MSNBC, Newsmax, Entertainment Weekly and USA Today. Reno lives in San Diego with his wife, Gabriela, and their daughter, Mandy.


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