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WSJ: Computer Flubs Left Vets Short of Housing Benefits

A Department of Veterans Affairs computer system botched calculations for GI Bill benefits, leaving thousands of student veterans without full housing assistance, a senior VA official told Congress on Thursday. The delays and shortfalls in payments have left some student veterans and their family members struggling to pay for housing, veterans groups and the VA say. At the root of the problem: the VA’s antiquated computer systems and a change Congress made last year in the way housing stipends are calculated under the GI Bill, a program that covers education expenses for veterans. The change went into effect on Aug. 1, overwhelming the VA’s IT infrastructure and leading to months of improperly-calculated payments, Paul Lawrence, the VA official in charge of the program, told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs. The underlying technology issues haven’t been resolved, and issues could emerge again in the coming spring semester, he said. In October, about 1,000 student veterans called the VA education call center to request help because of hardships related to the payment problem, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said. Veterans of Foreign Wars has received more than 100 calls requesting assistance, according to the group. Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors has fielded more than 100 calls for assistance from surviving spouses or dependents of veterans who qualify for benefits and who have not received them on time. Robert Worley, a senior VA official, said the agency had received some credible calls from veterans facing eviction from their homes. “Colleges and universities are bracing for a likely repeat this spring of the problems experienced this fall,” said Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, in a statement to the House committee. In some cases the benefits payment arrived both late to the recipients and short of funds. Under the policy change, the benefits are calculated based on the physical location of the classroom rather than the official location of the school. For instance, a student may take classes at a satellite campus as opposed to the main one. Since August, VA staff have worked overtime and in many cases reverted to older benefit calculations to ensure students are getting payments. In the three-month time frame ending in October, the VA spent $4 million on approximately 300,000 hours of overtime. VA officials blamed the mix-up in part on Congress because the new law forced the department to make the new calculations on its antiquated system. “Essentially, the law requires a 50-year-old IT platform that was designed to do the equivalent of basic math to instead perform something akin to calculus in short order,” Mr. Cashour told The Wall Street Journal in an email. Lawmakers say the VA has neglected to regularly update its computer systems. “I have become increasingly frustrated with VA’s inability to make their IT systems work and believe more and more that these failures are the root of many of the Department’s problems,” said Rep. Jodey Arrington (R., Texas) in a statement. The VA estimates that approximately 450,000 veterans have some sort of error with their payments, Mr. Cashour said. Veterans advocates said they have been getting calls for months about major miscalculations and errors in payments so large that veterans have been left struggling to pay rent. “VA is working diligently to resolve the outstanding issues, and will determine a deployment time frame once everything is tested and working,” Mr. Cashour said. The department estimated last year that fixes to the computer system would cost approximately $70 million.