- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 12, 2015

The GI Bill Congress passed to aid vets returning from the war on terror has helped, but the programs have too many strings attached and aren’t well known enough to make a big difference, the chief federal watchdog said Thursday.

The Department of Veterans Affairs did not properly advertise the new benefits, meaning many vets never found out they could use GI Bill money for practical training, such as becoming an electrician, in addition to more traditional college assistance.

Just 27,000 of the 1.2 million vets who have taken advantage of the GI Bill have opted for nontraditional education, the Government Accountability Office said.

Veterans who did learn of their options were happy with the choices but said the program has so many administrative hurdles that some had trouble actually getting benefits. The VA still uses a paper-based system that requires employers to fax or mail forms in order for the veteran to be reimbursed by the government.

And even though veterans who take part in the new on-the-job training (OJT) and apprenticeship programs report good reviews, the VA doesn’t have a good handle on the actual data.

“Little is known about the performance of VA’s Post-9/11 Bill OJT and apprenticeship programs because VA does not measure program outcomes, such as whether participants retain employment after completing the program,” GAO investigators said.

The GI Bill was originally passed after World War II to give returning troops assistance in getting a higher education. It is credited with helping produce a postwar economic boom. With a new round of troops returning from the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq, Congress created a new GI Bill in 2009 to help with college costs — then amended it in 2011 to allow veterans to use benefits for training, apprenticeships and vocational and technical school.

In order to get the benefits for on-the-job training and apprenticeships, the veteran’s employer must submit monthly forms to the VA that need to be processed. Some of the employers who spoke to GAO investigators said the process was “burdensome or inefficient.” Veterans said if their forms weren’t processed, their benefits were delayed.

The VA is developing a new data system to organize this information better, but the earliest the program will be put in use is 2017. Meanwhile, these administrative hurdles will keep hindering veterans trying to use the program, the report said.

The GAO recommended that the VA cut some of the administrative hurdles and advertise the program better.

The VA accepted all of the recommendations, and said it’s already begun trying to fix the problems.

Since the new GI Bill was enacted in 2009, the VA has spent more than $57 billion in education benefits covering more than 1.5 million veterans, according to White House figures.

• Anjali Shastry can be reached at ashastry@washingtontimes.com.

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