Trump signs bills holding VA accountable for delayed GI Bill payments

By Stefan Becket, Anna Gunther

/ CBS News

VA under fire for delayed GI Bill payments

President Trump on Thursday signed into law the second of two bills meant to hold the Department of Veterans Affairs accountable for an IT failure that delayed payments to thousands of veterans under the Forever GI Bill.

The White House said the president signed the Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act into law on Thursday, establishing a team to audit housing payments made to veterans and identify those affected by the delay. Another bill, the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act of 2018, included a provision barring schools from penalizing students whose payments were delayed because of the VA's failure.

The two bills were passed by both houses of Congress in the days leading up to the Christmas break. Mr. Trump signed the latter into law on Dec. 31.

The VA has come under harsh scrutiny by members of Congress and veterans groups for its botched implementation of a new system for making payments under the 2017 Forever GI Bill, which expanded housing and tuition benefits for veterans pursuing an education.

The law mandated a change in the way payments are calculated, and the VA was supposed to implement the changes by August 2018. However, the department's decades-old IT systems were unable to handle a backlog of claims and were crippled for weeks, delaying payments for thousands of veterans.

The VA owned up to the failure in late November and delayed implementation of the new system until December 2019. Facing intense scrutiny, Secretary Robert Wilkie assured lawmakers the department would ensure veterans receive the benefits they were due under the new law.

The two laws signed by Mr. Trump seek to hold the VA to that assurance.

The Forever GI Bill Housing Payment Fulfillment Act establishes a "Tiger Team" of department employees tasked with determining who was affected by the IT failure and establishing a plan to make sure they receive the benefits they are owed. The team must be established within 15 days and submit reports to Congress every three months, with a final report due in 2020.

Republican Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, a co-author of the law, said he was pleased Mr. Trump promptly signed the legislation.

"There's simply no excuse for failing to fully deliver the housing benefits that GI bill recipients are owed," Boozman said in a statement Thursday. "I will continue to use congressional oversight to make certain VA's errors do not go uncorrected."

The Veterans Benefits and Transition Act included a provision that bars schools from receiving GI Bill payments if they impose penalties on students whose benefits were delayed.

Republican Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, who was until Thursday the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, praised the president for quickly signing the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act, saying it "bring[s] us one step closer to fulfilling our promises to veterans."

First published on January 3, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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