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Automation helps changes to GI Bill benefits

Jan. 31, 2011 - 02:20PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 31, 2011 - 02:20PM  |  
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Veterans Affairs Department officials are optimistic about making changes this summer to the Post-9/11 GI Bill after having great success in cutting the processing time of benefits claims.

In 2009, when the veterans education program was launched, average processing time for a claim was 59 days. Today, that has dropped to 25 days for new claims, a reduction spurred by more experienced staff and by automation, senior VA officials said Monday.

Automation is the reason VA officials expect to be able to make a series of changes in GI Bill benefits later this year without delays.

Big changes coming on Aug. 1 include simplified payments, beginning with the fall 2011 term, to cover full tuition and fees for in-state undergraduate and graduate students, and payment of up to $17,500 for private schools or out-of-state tuition.

Also, housing stipends will be extended to distance-learning students; book allowances will be paid to active-duty members and their spouses using transferred benefits; and National Guard and reserve members will get more credit for their active service toward qualifying for benefits.

VA officials pledged that everyone now receiving benefits will be notified of the Aug. 1 changes. People could receive less money in some cases. Among the changes: Payments between terms will end, beginning Aug. 1, and living stipends for people who are taking less than a full credit load will be reduced.

"We will not have another 2009 on our hands," said Michael Walcoff, VA's acting undersecretary for benefits, who blamed 2009 delays in part on misjudgments about the workload and complexity of the new program.

VA officials also underestimated interest in the program, which has now paid out $8.1 billion in benefits to 440,000 students.

"Technology is substantially helping," said Roger Baker, VA's chief information officer, who noted that the system is now almost fully automated.

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