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Last week, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs made the appalling admission that it was going to delay newly expanded education and housing benefits to eligible U.S. veteran students for up to a year. The VA cited computer problems.

We often fault Congress for being too slow to act, but when the veterans’ plight was publicized in the media, swift congressional pressure helped VA see the light.

In a call with staffers from the House Committee on Veterans Affairs on Nov. 28, 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, as first reported by NBC News.

In testimony before the committee on Nov. 29, 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.

Just hours later, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie backtracked, saying in a written statement: "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."

CBS News interviewed a veteran who was expecting $7,000 in August, including tuition money, and had not received any VA payment until November when she received a partial payment.

According to a Nov. 15 Associated Press report, about 56,500 veterans had outstanding claims in mid-November, down from 82,000 claims a week earlier, according to information VA provided. The VA estimated that veterans were getting less than 1 percent of the housing benefits to which they are entitled, and that problems could continue for months more until the IT system is fixed.

In a press release Tuesday, Sen. Jon Tester, ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, promised to hold VA leaders accountable for fixing the payment problems.

Although Lawrence promised Tester a detailed correction plan would be presented yet this month, the delay has already caused hardship for veterans who were counting on the new benefits – benefits included in a new law enacted by Congress and President Trump in August 2017. A student can’t simply defer rent and tuition bills because the VA says it has a glitchy computer.

“The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee stands ready to provide the VA with any resources and authorities it needs to make things right with our nation’s student veterans,” Tester said.

The VA has recommended that veteran students contact the department’s call center at 888-442-4551 if they have problems getting their GI benefits.

We recommend that Montana student veterans also contact Tester’s office about any benefit delays.

There’s no room for excuses. The VA must timely deliver the benefits that veterans have earned under the law.

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The Billings Gazette

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