On Wednesday the Department of Veteran Affairs told congressional staffers that it will not compensate veterans who were underpaid in their recent GI Bill benefits, despite the error in the department's own computer system.
For weeks, student veterans have reported missing or incorrect payments, either in excessive or diminished amounts, due to a problem in the department's software. The glitch stems from system changes under the new Forever GI Act, designed to afford veterans more financial stability to pursue their education. VA spokesman Terrence Hayes stated that "severe critical errors" occurred when they implemented new standards for calculating stipends owed to veterans.
In response to these errors, the VA postponed using the new system until December 2019. Until then, they're deferring to the rates used in 2017, denying veterans a 1% increase in payments included in the Forever GI Act. In addition to delaying benefits, the VA also miscalculated housing allowances.
To those who were underpaid, the VA initially promised that they would issue retroactive payments. However, on Wednesday, officials told anonymous congressional staffers that they have no plans on issuing payments because doing so would require an all-encompassing audit of every education claim prior to December 2019, as many as 2 million claims, according to an aide.
Another aide told NBC News, "They are essentially going to ignore the law and say that that change only goes forward from December 2019."
Amidst the VA's refusal to comment and spokespersons' vague responses on the matter, it is unclear how many students have been underpaid or how much money is owed, but hundreds of thousands of veterans are thought to be affected. The department defends its actions with the claim that the audit required to reissue payments would only delay processing future claims, causing more veterans to suffer.
One of those veterans already feeling severe strain is Jane Wiley, 31, a former Marine who now serves as a reservist in the Air Force. Her husband is also a former marine, and they support two children while she attends Texas A&M San Antonio. In October, she told NBC News that they had yet to receive their housing allowance through the GI Bill, despite filing all necessary paperwork. They were facing food and housing insecurity as a direct result.
Wiley lamented, "People are homeless and starving because they can't rely on getting their benefits. If it means making [VA] employees stay all night, then get it done because it's better than putting families in crisis." She added, "You can count on us to serve, but we can't count on the VA to make a deadline."
Under Secretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence is due to testify before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs. Another key witness slated to appear resigned from the VA after news of underpaid veterans broke.
On Thursday, the VA denounced NBC News' original report as "misleading." Press Secretary Curt Cashour stated in an email sent to student veterans, "By the end of 2018, VA will install the current year uncapped DoD [basic allowance for housing] rates, and subsequently [monthly housing allowance] payments will follow this rate. For many students, this rate will be equal or higher than their current payments. Shortly after this update, VA will issue an additional payment to students who were underpaid for applicable terms."
How they'll define "applicable terms" in the new year is unclear, as it remains unspecified how long payments have been backed up or incorrect for how many veterans.