NEW YORK — The secretary of veterans affairs assured veterans they will be paid in full for, clarifying comments by VA officials Thursday indicating veterans might not receive all the money they were owed.
The confusion began Wednesday when the VA announced it was delaying implementing a change in the way reimbursements are calculated.
Under last year's Forever GI Bill, the department was supposed to make changes to the rate calculation by Aug. 1 of this year, but implementing the change led to a backlog of claims that crippled the department's creaky IT system. Thousands of veterans saw their benefits payments delayed, some for months at a time.
The department said Wednesday the change would be put off until Dec. 2019, but officials said vets would be reimbursed using the old rates instead of those mandated by the Forever GI Bill.
In a call with staffers from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Wednesday, VA officials said making retroactive payments under the new rates would require an audit of millions of prior claims, a process that could cause future delays. A committee staffer confirmed to CBS News the details of the call, which were first reported by NBC News.
Then, in testimony before the committee Thursday morning, VA Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence told lawmakers the VA was unlikely to adjust back payments using the new rates when they take effect in December 2019. Lawrence said it was unclear whether the massive amount of work needed to retroactively adjust claims would be worth the effort, but admitted some veterans would be entitled to higher benefits under the new rates.
"I think we need to figure out whether we need to come back to you, and ask for a legislative change to push the date to December first or not," Lawrence said in response to questioning by Republican Rep. Phil Roe of Tennessee, the committee's chairman. "It's not our intention to harm veterans, but we also have to think about the broad veteran population and whether what you're describing yields any benefits, just work."
Just hours later, however, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie backtracked, saying veterans would receive back payments under the new rates as required by law.
"To clear up any confusion, 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 said in a statement. He said he told the chairmen of the House and Senate veterans committees that was the case on Wednesday.
Wilkie added: "Although VA has encountered issues with implementing the Forever GI Bill on Congress' timeline, we will work with lawmakers to ensure that – once VA is in a position to process education claims in accordance with the new law – each and every beneficiary will receive retroactively the exact benefits to which they are entitled under that law."
Roe, the House chairman, expressed frustration with the "many missteps" taken in implementing the new rates, but thanked Wilkie for clarifying that all veterans would receive full back pay.
"Under the law, underpaid student veterans must receive their retroactive payments. The burden of correcting and making those retroactive payments is timely and costly, but that isn't a reason to dismiss a law or leave student veterans high and dry," Roe said in a statement Thursday. "My main goal is simply to provide student veterans with what President Trump and the Congress promised them in this law. The Secretary and I are on the same page on this."
The delay in GI Bill payments left thousands of veterans struggling to pay for housing and tuition just as the new school year got underway. Former staff sergeant Shaye Washington told CBS News earlier this month the VA had not distributed $7,000 she was expecting, including $3,000 she needs for tuition.
"The GI Bill is something we worked for. I've been deployed and been to wars, so I feel like I shouldn't have to stress over something that I worked for and risked my life for," Washington said.
A week later, Washington told CBS News she had received a payment, but not all of the money she was owed.