Saturday, October 17, 2009

Old love






Yesterday the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity met to address the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin called the hearing to order and noted that US House Reps Vic Snyder and Harry Mitchell were joining the committee (she asked for the Subcommittee's consent, which was given) and then explained, "Today we seek to administer our oversight jurisdiction on the VA's implementation efforts of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. I expect that this hearing will provide the VA the opportunity to update us on recent actions taken to address delays in distribution of education benefits and its plan moving forward to ensure the same mistakes do not occur in the future."

In his opening remarks, the VA's Keith M. Wilson stated that the VA was unable to find an outside contractor due to a low number of bids so the computer issues were handled in-house by VA's IT. He declared, "Post-911 GI Bill claims currently require manual processing using four separate IT systems that do not interface to each other. When an application or enrollment certification is received, the documents are captured into The Image Management System (TIMS). The documents are routed electronically to a claims examiner for processing. The claims examiner reviews the documents in TIMS and determines the student's eligibility, entitlement and benefit rate using the Front End Tool [FET]. The FET is used to calculate and store student information to support the Post-9/11 GI Bill claims adjudication process. However, the FET has limited capability for processing the multiple scenarios encountered in determining eligibility and entitlement under the new program." If that was an attempt at an explanation for the delay or even just a whine, the Pity Party's already seated and he needs to join others at the VA table -- the VA designed the system and if it doesn't work (so far it hasn't worked well) that falls back on the VA.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin The issue of outreach prior to the fall semester starting starting, we have repeatedly heard from veterans believing that their housing allowance would be issued to them at the beginning of the month or that this would be paid "upfront." What is creating this disconnect?

Keith M. Wilson: We've heard that as well. First let me clarify in terms of how it is paid. The monthly housing benefit is paid in the same manner as VA education benefits are paid under the same existing program -programs in that it is paid in arrays at the end of the month following the month of attendance. There -- and quite honestly this is speculation -- the tuition payment is paid to the school at the beginning of the year, the housing allowance -- I'm sorry the book and stipend allowance is paid to the student at the beginning of the semester. I think it would be logical for some individuals to make a connection between the manner in which those payments were made and the manner in which they would presume that the housing allowance would be paid.

Chair Stephanie Herseth Sandlin Before recognizing other members and we'll have another round of questions for everybody, yesterday at our full committee meeting when Secretary [Eric] Shinseki was testifying, we heard from several members that were proposing legislative fixes to make your job easier in the future because as you described it in your written testimony, your oral testimony today, I know you're laying the groundwork for your long-term IT solution but you're dealing with legacy systems and we had the recession effecting states and their decisions, and so some factors and some variables which, in a perfect world, we would have liked to have anticipated all of them and had you prepare for every possible scenario. But we do know that, uh, many members are interested in streamlining the administration of all the education benefits. I don't know if you're prepared to say which legislative fixes you'd endorse today or if you're starting to give those thoughts but any suggestions?

Keith M. Wilson: We are giving that a lot of thought. Clearly there are issues that have been discussed that conceptually are very appealing. Paying housing allowances in advance has been talked about as a possibility. Delinking the tuition payment with the schools with the need to get the housing payment out as quickly as possible to students, etc. The -- and I would -- I would agree that those are appealing from a conceptual perspective. The challenge I believe will be making sure that any legislative fixes are immediately implementable, taking into account the-the issues that you rightly brought up considering the legacy systems that we have in place, the limitations in our short term initiative that we are currently essentially locked into process claims. One thing we absolutely don't want to do is make the situation worse.

No, Wilson did not take accountability. Setting aside Wednesday's testimony to Congress when Shinseki revealed that the VA always knew the system wasn't ready -- which Wilson apparently thought he could ignore, if there are problems with schools or veterans for this new program, who does that fall back on? It's a new program. VA has a million and one excuses for their 'computer' problems. What's the excuse for any misunderstandings? The VA has a budget they are supposed to be spending to get the word out.

And what about when the VA gave out the wrong information? That was pursued at one point in the hearing.

US House Rep Harry Teague: You know we've had a problem with some contradictory information coming out. You know when the checks didn't go out the first of the month, well then we issued the letter that they would be cut on Friday the second. And then there was also some letters sent out that if, like in places like New Mexico, it's 320 miles to the only hospital and the only facility in the state that they would be going to some of the larger universities around and handing the checks out. That didn't happen. At the same time, they got a website up where they could go to but we didn't get that information to people. So I was just wondering if we're streamlining our communications within our office there so that we don't continually jerk the veterans around and have some of them misinformed.

Keith Wilson: I understand your concerns, Congressman. And we-we have, I believe, we have a better process in place to make sure that we are communicating more effectively on that. The issues that we are dealing with was trying to get -- make sure we had something out the gate and-and informed our student population prior to 10-1 [October 1st] -- around the 10-1 time frame. The 10-1 was important because most folks were at that point where they were due their first housing allowance payments. .We thought it was important to get something up as soon as possible. We were dealing -- and continued to deal -- at the time of that press release, with some technical issues concerning how we get to the other locations beyond our 57 regional offices. We very early on wanted a desire to spread this out as much as possible. We felt that the most effective way of doing this was leveraging technology. Taking into account that we've got technology students at thousands of locations across the country. We felt the most effective way of uh getting those folk that weren't within distance of a regional office was to allow technology and so that was the driver for our decision on the follow up --

US House Rep Harry Teague: Yes and I agree with that and I think that the webpage is working good. It's just that during that week prior to that, when I was at New Mexico State University, they were expecting someone to be there with the checks and then, on Friday when there's not, that's when we find out about the webpage.

Keith Wilson: I understand.

US House Rep Harry Teague: Another thing I don't know, I guess it's a misunderstanding on their part and I guess I was wondering where the information came from that so many of the veterans thought that they were going to be paid in advance both for tuition and housing?

Keith Wilson: I-I-I uh -- The advance payment issue has been troubling. We have had, in our outreach material, going back to the winter period -- early spring, winter period, information providing the student experience. In other words, what would the student experience. We have worked very hard to make individuals understand when they will be paid. The example that we used was for the individual who would be having their first day of class toward the end of August, come September 1st, they were only eligible for a partial housing allowance for those couple of days of attendance in September followed by the first full housing allowance paid October 1st. For whatever reason, and again, I would be speculating that didn't seem to be fully understood. Largely it did because most of our current participants are transferees from the Montgomery GI Bill and this past benefit is paid in the same manner but we didn't get that word out to everybody and there were pockets of communication and we need to continue to work hard on that issue.

US House Rep Harry Teague: You know, and you brought up another thing there with the transferring from the Montgomery GI Bill to the Post-9/11 GI Bill and sometimes before they understand the full benefits of both programs, people have committed the Post-9/11 GI Bill and then found out that it really didn't have as many benefits for them individually as the Montgomery GI Bill but they can't switch back. Is there anything that we can do there where they can reconsider if -- through oversight on their part or misinformation -- they want to go back to the Montgomery Bill?

Keith Wilson: The structure of the Post-9/11 GI Bill calls for an irrevocable decision so currently that's a statutory requirement -- is an individual has to revoke, there's no mechanism in the statute allow -- that would allow a person to unrevoke the irrevocable election. Our-our mechanism by which we have been educating people on that is making sure that they can understand the an -- the questions that need to be answered. The answers to the questions themselves are going to be unique to each individual person. You're absolutely right for raising this concern. Individuals do have to be well armed, they have to know what questions to ask and our efforts have been designed towards ensuring they can answer those questions.

A friend who is an Iraq War veteran and a veterans' advocate was at yesterday's hearing and wanted it pointed out how the VA is taking no accountability for all of this. He points out what a huge, huge amount of information is required for all of this -- for deciding to go with the Montgomery GI Bill or the Post-9/11 GI Bill just for starters. At this site, we repeatedly referred to the VFW which offered advocates by phone who would explain what was going on and that's because the VFW is going to know what's going on, is going to have explored every facet. And people who called the VFW got information they could use -- the VFW provided that service at no charge -- in determining which plan would be best for them and details of each. But why does the VFW have to do that? It's great that they did. Praise to them for it. They did a wonderful job. But this is the VA's program. This is a government program run by a government department. It shouldn't require a veterans service organization -- which is what the VFW is -- to help veterans sort through the maze.

That was the VA's responsibility, not the VFW's. (And to be clear, the friend I'm speaking is a member of the VFW but his advocacy is not with/for the VFW. It would be fine if it were and if it it were, I would identify him as such.) The VA did not live up to its obligations. A new program is run by the VA. Guess whose job it is to explain that program? The VA's. No one else has that obligation. Many veterans service organizations took it upon themselves to assist their members and that's wonderful. But that's the bonus, that's the added detail. The VA is not supposed to count on or rely on veterans service organizations to do their job.

The VA did not do their job and this is why there is confusion now. The VA has put the blame off on colleges, it's pushed the blame off on individuals. It is a VA program. The VA is responsible for administering it and administering it properly. Now anyone can put a program in place and have it fall apart. That's, in fact, what the VA did. But their role also includes "administering it properly" and that is what they did not do and what they have not taken accountability for. Once Congress made the program law, it was in the VA's court and they were responsible. Having made it a law, the Congress repeatedly asked the VA what they could do to help? Did they need more employees? Did they need more money? What did they need? And the VA led the Congress to believe -- as they led the veterans and as they led the American people to believe -- that there was no problem. But Wednesday, truth emerged when Eric Shinseki informed Congress that the VA always knew there would be a problem, that he had hired an outside consultant who had backed up internal opinions that it wasn't manageable. And until Wednesday, the VA never informed Congress of this problem.

Last night, Rebecca noted a press release from US House Rep Glen Nye's office about additional questions Nye has submitted to Shinseki since the hearing:

If internal estimates showed that there would be delays in processing tuition payments, why did the Department of Veterans Affairs not seek additional resources or support prior to the start of the academic year?

Nye has additional points and other strong statements but that question above is the main one and it needs to be answered.

US House Rep Harry Mitchell grasps that. Let's jump into his exchange from yesterday. He began by noting that the VA had not yet given out Fiscal Year 2009 bonuses and he strongly suggested that before any "plush bonuses" were handed out, the VA think long and hard about the veterans struggling to receive the benefits that they have earned.

US House Rep Harry Mitchell: Mr. Wilson, this is not your first appearance before this subcommittee. You have appeared before it several times since the GI Bill was signed into law to keep the committee members apprised of the VA's efforts to implement the GI Bill. And you offered assurances that the VA would be ready by August 1st. You even brought in a detailed timeline to show us how the VA would be ready by August 1st. In February, [John] Adler of this Committee asked if the VA needed more tools to accomplish the goal of program implementation and you responded by stating, "This legislation itself came with funding. This funding at this point has adequately provided us with what we need for implementing payments on August 1, 2009." If this legislation provided you with what you needed then why did you go to the VA -- or then where did you and the VA go wrong in meeting the implementation goal? So I'd like to ask two questions. How are we supposed to believe the assurances you're offering today? And, two, knowing how interested Congress is in implementing the GI Bill, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you let us know? Why did we have to first hear about it from veterans and read about it in the Army Times?

Keith Wilson: You rightly call us out in terms of not providing timely service to all veterans. We acknowledge that and uh are working as hard as humanly possible uh to make sure that we are meeting those goals. Uh the timeline that we provided to the subcommittee uh I believe was largely met uh in terms of our ability to generate payments on the date that we were required to deliver the first checks -- first payments did go out August 3rd. Uh there were a couple of significant challenges uh that we had not anticipated. One was uh the volume of work created by the increase in applications for eligibility determinations that did not translate into student population dropping off other programs. But we had significantly more work in our existing programs than we would have expected to have to maintain going into the fall enrollment. One of the other primary challenges that we have responded to is uh when we began our ability to use the tools that were developed uh to implement the program in the short term. Uh May 1st is when we began using those tools and it was very clear to us from the get-go that even accounting for our understanding that they weren't perfect, we underestimated the complexity and the labor-intensive nature of what needed to be done. We responded by hiring 230 additional people to account for that.

US House Rep Harry Mitchell: And I read all of that in your testimony. My point is, once you knew you were running into problems, why didn't you come back to us? We heard it first by veterans and through the Army Times that you were having problems.

Keith Wilson: [Heavy, audible sigh] It has been our desire from the get-go to make sure that the subcommittee has been informed all along. If we did not meet those expectations, then we need to be held accountable for that. We provided information that we had at each of the hearings and we have had a long standing mechanism by which we have provided updates to staff on a regular basis. Uh we did notify the Subcommittee at the time of the hiring of the 230 additional people.

Mitchell was obviously not impressed with the response. They had to break to take votes. But everyone should grasp how offensive Wilson's answer is: "If we did not meet those expectations, then we need to be held accountable for that." If? Veterans were in danger of losing their homes, some of those veterans were parents, some were single-parents. They were not getting their checks will into October (and some still haven't gotten their checks). Did Congress hear that and say, "Sure, fine, you do whatever you want." No. Congress would not have taken that attitude and Congress was not informed. There is no "if." Congress was not informed of the problems and Democrat or Republican, every member of the Veterans Affairs Committee -- in Committee meetings and Subcommittee meetings throughout 2008 -- has asked the VA (a) do they need any other resources and (b) please come to us immediately if you have any problems.

There is no "if." The VA did not meet expectations. I'll go further. They lied -- and that includes Wilson -- to the Congress. Repeatedly. Shinseki testified on Wednesday that when he stepped into his role as VA Secretary at the start of this year, he knew. He was told that the VA could not meet the expectations. He then went and hired an outside consultant to determine whether or not that was true. The consultant determined the same thing. Shinseki: "And in order to do that, we essentially began as I arrived in January, uh, putting together the plan -- reviewing the plan that was there and trying to validate it. I'll be frank, when I arrived, uh, there were a number of people telling me this was simply not executable. It wasn't going to happen. Three August was going to be here before we could have everything in place. Uh, to the credit of the folks in uh VA, I, uh, I consulted an outside consultant, brought in an independent view, same kind of assessment. 'Unless you do some big things here, this is not possible.' To the credit of the folks, the good folks in VBA, they took it on and they went at it hard. We hired 530 people to do this and had to train them. We had a manual system that was computer assisted. Not very helpful but that's what they inherited. And we realized in about May that the 530 were probably a little short so we went and hired 230 more people. So in excess of 700 people were trained to use the tools that were coming together even as certificates were being executed. Uhm, we were short on the assumption of how many people it would take." When did the VA share the problem with the Congress? Never.

That's what US Rep Mitchell was getting at in his testimony -- how the Congress had to learn about the problems from veterans and the Army Times. That's ridiculous. As he pointed out, they had multiple hearings, they made requests and the VA never indicated any problems in testimony or in one-on-one discussions.

The VA's failure is an issue. It's an issue that many veterans are still living with as they wait for education benefit checks to arrive. But the issue Congress needs to resolve is why they were misled. If that's not resolved, what is the point?

US House Rep Harry Mitchell: Mr. Wilson, I believe that no veteran, and I'm talking as a former school teacher who values education very, very much, I don't believe any veteran should fall behind even a semester because of the VA's inability to meet the goals that we've set out for them. And I'd like to know what the VA's doing to ensure that future payments will not be delayed? As well as, what assurances can you offer that these measures will work?

Keith Wilson: Everything that we're putting into place right now is designed to ensure that we go into the spring semester fully loaded with what we need to have on board. We will take every step that we need to to make sure that veterans have access to payment. If that means that we have to keep an advance payment mechanism some -- some sort in process, we will do that. But our goal is to make sure that those mechanisms are not needed, that we have this issue resolved prior to the spring semester and we move forward. The Secretary has been very clear that any delay in payment is unacceptable. Everybody in VA agrees wholeheartedly with that. On a personal level, I can say first hand, I know exactly what these students are going through.

Liar. He went to college. On a GI Bill. That doesn't mean he knows what the veteran students are going through today. A program was in place for him and it administered the checks in a timely manner. For him to try to use his 'personal experience' should have resulted in someone on the Subcommittee coming back with, "Well if you know what it's like, why did you and others mislead the Veterans Affairs Committee instead of coming to us and asking for help as we repeatedly requested you to do?"

Stephanie Herseth asked if he needed additional staff at the call center for educational benefits. She also underscored that "we need to be made aware of the problems immediately if there's any complications that arise" and "if you start anticipating problems or start experiencing problems" then let the Committee know. US House Rep John Adler also touched on this repeatedly such as asking Wilson "are there any other tools you need from Congress" and reminding him that "we would like to hear from you as needs arise, before the crisis arise" and "tell us what you need from us."

But here's the thing, these statements? Made throughout 2008. And we know how that didn't work out. There needs to be accountability. There was none. And it was really cheap and dishonest for this man who has worked at the VA since 1989 to pretend he understood what it was like for the veterans who worried (and some still do) that they will be homeless because their education checks have not arrived. Translation: The hearing accomplished nothing. The friend I spoke of earlier stated he felt the Subcommittee made Wilson squirm but he didn't feel that anything else was accomplished: "There was no effort to track down where the accountability was or where the breakdown came in. Even the most basic question was not asked: 'Were you ordered not to tell the Congress that there were problems coming up, problems that the department knew were coming?'"

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