Hundreds of Long Island college students using the GI Bill have scrambled to pay rent or school costs after a backlog of education claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs delayed benefits checks this semester, veterans advocates and college officials said.
“The GI Bill payment delays are unacceptable, and there has been no one held accountable,” said Kristofer Goldsmith, a policy analyst for the Vietnam Veterans of America, an advocacy organization. “For weeks and months, people have been stressing out, and some haven’t known if they would eat."
Goldsmith, an Iraq War veteran and Bellmore native who is pursuing a political science degree at Columbia University, added: “I have one week left, and my tuition is still not paid.”
The check delays are the result of the Forever GI Bill, which was signed in 2017 by President Donald Trump. The bill changed the way student housing benefits were to be calculated. It also eliminated a 15-year time limit for using the education benefits, and made other changes.
Rollout was scheduled for Aug. 1, but the VA was unable to rewrite software needed to implement some of the changes before the deadline. That slowed the handling of stipends — even as the number of new claims coming in reached three times the norm, according to VA spokesman Curt Cashour, who responded by email rather than return a telephone call for comment.
In late November, nearly 10,000 student claims remained backlogged by as long as 60 days, Cashour added in the email. Nearly 700 claims were more than two months late.
College officials here and nationally said the delays appear to have abated in the past several weeks.
"The VA seems to have mostly caught up, but in October, it was mayhem," said Shannon O'Neill, director of veterans affairs at Suffolk County Community College.
O'Neill said as many as half the 318 students receiving the stipends had been affected. "A good majority of our students were a good month late in their payments," O'Neill said.
At Nassau Community College, where about 300 veterans are enrolled, late checks have brought more than a dozen students into the office of Evangeline Manjares, the school’s dean of veterans affairs. A similar number of students were affected at Farmingdale State College, said Eric Farina, the college’s director of veterans affairs.
Columbia responded to the delays by suspending a policy barring students with unpaid fees from enrolling in the upcoming semester, university spokesman Robert Hornsby said.
One Nassau student affected was Ricky Thornton, an Army veteran who was discharged in 2011. Thornton said the $2,800 monthly stipend he is entitled to under the GI Bill had been delayed by more than a month.
With a wife and child to support, and rent payments due for his Valley Stream home, Thornton said he was forced to turn to relatives to borrow money for food for his 7-year-old son and for gasoline to drive to classes. His local cable company wanted to suspend his internet service. His car registration expired.
“It was really bad because we didn’t have a nest egg and had to start borrowing from family, which is not good,” said Thornton, who said his stipend checks were nearly six weeks overdue before they began arriving in October. “And when I called the VA, they didn’t have a time frame for when the money would start coming, so I had no way of knowing. Would it be another month? Two months?”
The problems led to a Nov. 29 hearing on Capitol Hill.
The VA’s undersecretary for benefits, Paul Lawrence, angered members of Congress and veterans advocates when he told members of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs that veterans who received stipend checks that were less than what they were entitled to might never be made whole.
That led to a swift reversal by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, who by the end of the day had released a statement saying eligible veterans would be repaid in full for the delayed education benefits.
“I want to make clear that each and every post-9/11 GI Bill beneficiary will be made 100 percent whole — retroactively, if need be — for their housing benefits for this academic year based on Forever GI Bill rates, not on post-9/11 GI Bill rates,” Wilkie’s statement read.
But his statement, which was posted on a VA website, apparently acknowledged uncertainty as to whether the delays would continue into the spring semester or be a problem in August, when the number of students applying for GI Bill benefits typically spikes in anticipation of the fall semester.
A Washington analyst with the Veterans of Foreign Wars said he is cautiously optimistic the VA will be able to get stipends to students on time during the spring semester.
But Lawrence said if the VA is not able to speed improvements to its information technology system, student veterans again could be forced to borrow for groceries and delay rent payments while they wait for checks.
“One problem may be in the past, and there may be a problem again in the future,” Lawrence said. “But looking forward to the spring semester, we think things should be fine.”