VA To Issue Emergency Checks For GI Benefits
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The government has updated the GI Bill and will now help a quarter- million veterans pay for college. Some will be turning up at Veterans Administration offices this morning to get their checks. The checks were supposed to have arrived by now, but the VA failed to process all the applications quickly enough to meet the deadline.
Alison St. John, of member station KPBS, has more from the campus of San Diego State University.
ALISON ST. JOHN: More than 300 veterans have enrolled in classes this semester at San Diego State University under the new GI Bill. Nathaniel Donnelly of the New Vet Center on campus is helping at an ice cream social to raise awareness of the student veterans organization.
Mr. NATHANIEL DONNELLY (Founder, San Diego State University Student Veterans Organization): Ice cream. Free ice cream. Come get your free ice cream.
Unidentified Woman: Would you like some ice cream?
Unidentified Man: I want to get some ice cream.
Unidentified Woman: Chocolate or vanilla?
ST. JOHN: Donnelly says SDSU has bent over backwards to accommodate veterans under the new GI Bill, and there are more vets on campus than ever this year. He says the new bill offers more generous allowances for living expenses and books.
Mr. DONNELLY: The new GI Bill is very significant in that it really tries to emulate the original GI Bill, you know, that was signed into law by FDR in 1944. And basically the motive behind that was, you don't have to work. Concentrate on school. Get an education.
ST. JOHN: But, Donnelly says, the students who began the semester a month ago are having a hard time concentrating on school right now because none of them has received their money from the VA.
Mr. DONNELLY: We have had instances of veterans coming, they're thinking OK, I've been accepted. I'm getting 100 percent of the GI Bill. This is how much I'm going to receive. I'm going to quit my job, concentrate on school. So now that the payments are delayed, you know, they're not getting their rent paid. They don't have money for food.
ST. JOHN: San Diego congressman Bob Filner, chair of the House Veterans Committee, is angry about the backlog.
Representative Bob Filner (Democrat, California; Chairman, House Veterans Affairs Committee): This problem is not money. The problem is bureaucracy. The Veterans Administration has not processed these claims quickly enough. We gave them authority to hire people to take care of this, and for some reason that only bureaucrats can understand, they didn't get the checks out on time.
ST. JOHN: Keith Wilson, director of education services for the VA, says the agency did take action when it turned out their computer system wasn't up to the task of processing all the claims.
Mr. KEITH WILSON (Director, Veterans Association Education Services): We hired 230 additional people in May. We also implemented a mandatory overtime policy. We realize that we haven't met everybody's expectations, but obviously we're not going to stop working until we do that.
ST. JOHN: Wilson says of 250,000 veterans enrolled in college under the bill, about 34,000 have not yet received their first month's living allowance. As a stopgap, Wilson says, they can apply on the Web and get an emergency check of up to $3,000 within a week. Or they can go down to the nearest VA office today and pick up their check in person.
Unidentified Woman: We have sprinkles and whipped cream, too.
ST. JOHN: Andrew Campbell is a Navy vet studying engineering at SDSU. He jokes he's down at their free ice cream social because he can't afford to buy lunch. He's one of those who'll be in line at the VA's office this morning.
Mr. ANDREW CAMPBELL (Student): They're going to pay you when they get around to it, but creditors and rent doesn't really accept IOUs. So I needed to pay bills, I got to go down, stand in line with the rest of the people.
ST. JOHN: But Campbell says he's glad to be signed up under the new GI Bill because the benefits, once he gets them, are generous. Nathaniel Donnelly of the Vet Center on campus agrees.
Mr. DONNELLY: Once it all gets sorted out, it's going to be a great thing. You know, it is a really good bill. Eventually, it'll be smooth - and we can't wait for that to happen.
ST. JOHN: Donnelly says he hopes the VA will have caught up by the time next month's checks are due.
For NPR News, I'm Alison St. John in San Diego.
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