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VA Late On GI Bill Checks

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Bureaucratic delays have left veterans using the Post-9/11 GI Bill with no money to pay college bills.

Patrick Campbell, chief legislative counsel for the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, blames foot-dragging in Veterans Affairs offices.  The department, he said, "has a slow and outdated system that forces them to do every claim by hand." Each claim takes about two hours to process.

This is the first academic year for the bill, which took effect August 1. The government is supposed to send tuition money directly to schools, while veterans get a separate check for books and housing.

But it's not working. The Department of Veterans Affairs claims that the average processing time for a new report is 56 days, meaning that even if a student had submitted paperwork on August 1, it is probably still in bureaucratic limbo. Calls to the Post-9/11 GI Bill's help line are greeted with a recording stating that the department has received "an unprecedented number of education claims.  As a result, it is temporarily taking longer than usual." A disclaimer on the VA's website discourages calling.

As of mid-September, over 276,000 educational claims were still pending, compared with 68,000 at this time last year. That means over half a million work-hours yet to process the current claims -- not counting those yet to be filed. And plans for an automated system are not expected to be realized until at least January of 2010.

As a result, students have been counting on the patience and generosity of college registrars. Many schools, like the University of Michigan, are advancing credit to student veterans based on their estimated amount of aid.

Even then, students are still in the lurch when it comes to money for housing and books --  and a growing concern is that landlords and book stores will not be as kind as schools. "Even if your living allowance isn't coming in until mid-October," remarked Campbell, "you owe rent on September 1." That means taking out loans and piling up credit card debt. Said Campbell, "the whole point of the new GI Bill was that veterans wouldn't have to do that."

The Army Times reports that officials expect the majority of students will be paid living expenses by October 1 -- including retroactive money for the beginning of the school year. In the meantime, schools and vets alike are left waiting. But some students, like former Army Flight Operations Specialist Douglas Prough, are not completely confident: "I have my fingers crossed" for getting a check sometimes this month, he said.

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