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Expanded GI Bill could delay payments to schools

PHOENIX — An expected increase in students taking advantage of the expanded GI Bill of Rights could initially leave Arizona universities and community colleges waiting to receive payments, an official with the state Department of Veterans’ Services said.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs expects a jump in those using the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which takes effect in August, in part because it doubles education benefits and helps with living expenses. Some veterans advocacy groups and lawmakers have questioned whether the VA will be ready for the influx.

“The VA has indicated that they anticipate a huge backup,” said Lee Sevy, administrator of the Arizona Veterans Education and Training Approving Agency, part of the state Department of Veterans’ Services.

Arizona law provides a 120-day window that allows veterans who qualify for the benefits to register for and attend classes even if a school hasn’t received payment.

“As long as the VA can process and pay, we’ll be fine,” said Maralynn Bernstein, the University of Arizona’s veterans services coordinator, who added that she hasn’t heard of an anticipated backlog in the VA’s handling of claims.

If necessary, veterans could file for extensions to the 120-day window, though that would put an administrative strain on the university, she said.

Valerie Vigil, veterans coordinator and assistant director of financial aid at Mesa Community College, said she worries that the VA might be tardy in getting benefits to the students who need them.

“I’m hoping the VA will pay in a timely manner,” Vigil said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Katie Roberts, a VA spokeswoman, said the agency is working to avoid delays.

“No, that’s not necessarily true,” Roberts said of the concerns raised by Sevy. “We are actually rigorously planning for that.”

Rep. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., one of the original sponsors of the expanded GI Bill, said he and other lawmakers have been meeting with the VA to ensure that it’s ready for August. He said in an e-mail interview that he’s been satisfied with the answers.

“If veterans or schools have concerns, then I’m concerned,” he said. “If the VA is not ready it is important that they let Congress know as soon as possible so Congress can provide them the resources needed to serve our veterans.”

Sevy said that the GI Bill’s provisions eventually will be implemented well. However, he expects a bumpy ride at first.

“It’ll work out eventually,” he said. “It might take several months before it does work out.”


The new GI Bill

• Name: Post-9/11 Veterans Education Assistance Act of 2008

• Signed into law: June 30

• Applies to: Those who served on active duty from Sept. 11, 2001, on, including National Guard members and reservists.

• Service required: full benefits for those who have served at least 36 months, reduced to 30 continuous days for those discharged due to a disability related to military service. Those with less service receive a percentage.

• What’s covered: institutions of higher education, which can include vocational schools and nontraditional programs. A stipend to help with living expenses applies to those studying more than half-time at brick-and-mortar institutions but not to those taking online courses.

Source: Department of Veterans Affairs

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