Will the VA pay what it owes student veterans?

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Flags representing all U.S. military branches line the hall at Wichita State's Military and Veteran Services office.  In the background several student veterans are studying. Flags representing all U.S. military branches line the hall at Wichita State's Military and Veteran Services office. In the background several student veterans are studying.

"If you say you're going to do something, do it," said Michael Bearth, a U.S. Marine veteran and student at Wichita State University.  Like many Kansas veterans, he's bracing for more problems with GI Bill benefit payments. 

Just as the Department of Veterans Affairs is getting a backlog of benefits applications under control, new headlines hit shouting that the VA may not fix shortfalls on housing benefit checks this year.  The VA swears every veteran will get their due. 

Student veterans just want to know what's going on.

"Saying that those that....may have been overpaid were not getting any reduction, I can kind of understand," said Bearth.  "But to not afford the same respect to those who are underpaid is kind of off-putting to me."

The Veteran Student Senator in Wichita State's student government, Bearth has spent the last few months helping student veterans deal with problems getting their benefits applications certified caused by a change in the VA's IT system.  Now, he's concerned about a possible new problem.  This one due to changes Congress made to the Forever GI Bill, designed to make GI benefits lifelong, not limited by how long it's been since someone served.  In this case, the change made the housing benefits dependent on where a student veteran is attending school.

"We said we should give you a per diem amount based upon where you're actually going to school," said Rep. Roger Marshall, (R) Kansas 1st District.  "And we asked the VA to have it up and running by August the first of this year and it's still not up and running."

Due to errors and misunderstandings some students got more money than alotted, others didn't get enough.  Now, word the VA may not true up what's owed on the shortfalls.

At WSU's military and veterans services office, they're worried and upset.

"This is something that is owed to them by the government for their service.  And it is not our student veterans' fault that the system is not working.  it is the government's fault that the system is not working," said retired Army Lt. Col. Larry Burks, Sr, head of Wichita State's Military and Veterans Services Office. 

The university has been offering emergency loans to veteran student still waiting for GI Bill payments, but says it can't do much more.  

"The measure of what they need is going to be a very large amount of money and something that only the government can truly make right," Burks said.  "But Wichita State University is going to certainly do everything that we can here to support them during these times."

Many students aren't quite sure what to believe.

"It's pretty far out there for me," said Ciaban Peterson, president of the Student Veterans Organization at WSU.  "I believe that there needs to be a follow up with it, if it's true or not, but explicitly coming from leadership versus others who are unnamed sources."

In Washington D.C. the Undersecretary of Veterans Benefits swore the national story was false saying in a written statement, "Once again - each and every, and I mean every single veteran, will be made whole for their housing benefits this year."

But then, Dr. Paul Lawrence told a congressional committee that a retroactive audit of payments needed to determine who the VA still owes is not a given.

"It is not clear there are going to be any changes.  We've got to figure out what the implications of that are. then go back, or not, as appropriate," Dr. Lawrence said.

Kansas Congressional delegation is promising to hold the VA accountable.

"So we may have overpaid some people.  We may have underpaid some people.  But what we got the VA to commit to today is, number one, they weren't going to call back any of the dollars and, number two, by golly, they are going to reimburse those folks what they actually should have been paid," Rep. Marshall said via Skype Thursday afternoon.  "So there may have been a little bit of hesitancy on the part of the VA, but I don't think there's any of that going on now and we're going to hold them accountable."

In a written statement, Rep. Lynn Jenkins, (R) Kansas 2nd District, said, "In previous communications from the VA they seemed to indicate they would comply with the law and have even gone so far as to acknowledge that is the law. Why the VA is now sending mixed messages on this commitment is puzzling and unacceptable.  In the weeks ahead, I will work with my colleagues to make sure the VA sticks to the law passed by Congress."

Rep. Ron Estes, (R) Kansas 4th District, said via a written statement, ""I am disappointed in NBC running a misleading story about the VA but glad the agency clarified that veterans on the post-9/11 GI Bill will receive 100% of their housing benefits for the academic year.  Our veterans and their families make incredible sacrifices for our country and deserve our full support. I am pleased that by 2020, the VA will have transitioned to a new technology system to avoid backlogs which have previously occurred."

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