By Terry Howell
According to a March 12, 2009 Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General report, “successful implementation remains a difficult and risky challenge…" This rather bleak view of the implementation process, while more realistic than other recent VA reports, should not come as a shock to anyone paying attention to the details of the of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program.
The new GI Bill program (Chapter 33) has put a huge demand on an already overloaded agency. As the OIG report further denotes, “…[the VA's] projected workload estimate did not include consideration of greater participation because of the current economic climate. Inadequate staffing can potentially delay claims processing.” Considering that GI Bill claims can already run 20 or more weeks behind, this does not offer much hope.
"We have some concerns that the Veterans Benefits Administration may need more staff than currently planned…" says OIG. However, the OIG does say that the VA is considering rehiring VA annuitants [retirees] with the expertise needed to more quickly and efficiently process the expected flood of Post-9/11 GI Bill benefit claims.
Unfortunately the OIG report (excerpt below) failed to directly address the incredible number of benefit questions that will result when veterans are asked to make an irrevocable choice between GI Bill programs. This choice is crucial and will determine which education and training programs, benefit payments, and limitations will apply to each veteran. In some situations veterans may find that sticking to the Montgomery GI Bill (Chapter 30) would mean greater benefits.
For example, under current rules, veterans participating in 100 percent distance learning and online programs are excluded from receiving the monthly stipend – a benefit which ranges from $800 to $2,700 a month paid to the veteran.
Post-9/11 GI Bill regulations and policy details are still being worked out. Relatively few of the soon-to-be-hired VA representatives will be properly equipped to give advice on which program each veteran should apply for by the Aug. 1, 2009 deadline.
Military.com has created a Guide to Choosing the Right GI Bill, which offers a general view of how to compare the two benefits. It is important to note that some facts still remain sketchy and are subject to change. Stay tuned to either this blog or the VA GI Bill Q&A site for future updates.
The OIG report concludes with the following statement: “We [OIG] will focus our efforts on identifying and evaluating potential weaknesses in assumptions underlying project feasibility determinations, schedule, costs, and risk assessments.”
The OIG has their work cut out for them.
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The following is an excerpt from the DVA OIG report:
Office of Inspector General, Department of Veterans Affairs
Statement before the Subcommittee on Military Construction,
Veterans Affairs, and Related Agencies
Committee on Appropriations
United States House of Representatives
Hearing on Department of Veteran Affairs Challenges
March 12, 2009
The OIG has provided oral briefings to the relevant congressional oversight committees’ staff on VA’s progress in implementing the Post 9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2008 (new GI Bill) (Public Law 110-252).
After a long planning period, VA has made progress in the current quarter; however successful implementation remains a difficult and risky challenge due to the inherent difficulties in creating the software tools, limited VA Office of Information and Technology development resources, vulnerabilities in Veterans Benefits Administration staffing estimates, and aggressive project scheduling requirements. In the coming months, VA will need to complete its primary plans for software development and implement contingency plans.
We have some concerns that VBA may need more staff than currently planned since officials have acknowledged reducing planned hiring by 48 employees (8 percent) due to space limitations. Further, VBA’s estimate is based on annualized workload, rather than the peak seasonal workload expected during the beginning of the school year. Also, VBA’s projected workload estimate did not include consideration of greater participation because of the current economic climate. Inadequate staffing can potentially delay claims processing. However, VBA is exploring possible solutions, such as rehiring annuitants with needed expertise.
VA’s contingency plan identifies significant project risks, mitigation strategies, decision dates to deploy alternate plans, and estimated resource requirements. We are continuing to monitor the feasibility of some mitigation strategies that are more resource intensive, such as adding more employees to support the use of manual processes. For example, if the functionality to make recurring housing payments is delayed, the contingency plan calls for hiring 263 additional employees to initiate these monthly education payments. Clearly, implementing a manual process would lack the controls an automated system could offer.
Completion of the business requirements for the long-term solution may be delayed because many VA subject matter experts are focused on the interim solution. We will continue to monitor plan adjustments and additional planning/project deliverables, including the Integrated Master Schedule, to assess further potential impediments to program implementation. We will focus our efforts on identifying and evaluating potential weaknesses in assumptions underlying project feasibility determinations, schedule, costs, and risk assessments.