VA Officials Reluctant to Say When G.I. Benefit Delays Will Be Fixed

Soldiers salute the U.S. flag during the Pledge of Allegiance at a welcome home ceremony for soldiers returning from a deployment in Afghanistan, at Fort. Carson, Colo.

Soldiers salute the U.S. flag during the Pledge of Allegiance at a welcome home ceremony for soldiers returning from a deployment in Afghanistan, at Fort. Carson, Colo. Brennan Linsley/AP File Photo

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Lawmakers grilled Veterans Affairs Department officials about the IT issues that prevented tens of thousands of veterans from receiving education and housing stipends on time.

Veterans Affairs Department officials on Thursday refused to give a date for when they would resolve IT issues that have prevented tens of thousands of veterans from receiving G.I. Bill benefits on time.

Under legislation passed in August 2017, the agency was required to reconfigure its method for calculating the amount of housing and educational assistance veterans would receive under the G.I. Bill. The change meant the department needed to upgrade the Long Term Solution system, or LTS, the IT used to calculate benefits.

Officials previously assured Congress the new tech would be fully operational by Aug. 1, but more than three months later, the overhaul is still in progress. As a result, the agency has issued benefits for this year’s fall semester weeks, sometimes months, behind schedule.

“We were promised that the [problems] would be addressed in a matter of weeks. We were also promised the delays would be short and would not significantly impact students,” said House Veterans Affairs Economic Opportunity subcommittee Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas. “I find these delays are simply unacceptable.”

The claims backlog peaked on Sept. 14 with some 207,000 vets awaiting benefits, but as of Thursday, that number stood around 73,000, according to Maj. Gen. Robert Worley, director of the Veterans Benefit Administration’s Education Service. While Worley said that overall number is fairly typical, it includes some 11,000 vets who have waited more than 30 days to receive the education and housing stipend. Of those, 1,000 have waited more than 60 days.

The agency is focusing its efforts on processing those older claims, and it’s brought on additional employees and implemented mandatory overtime to begin chipping away at the backlog, said Veterans Affairs Undersecretary for Benefits Paul Lawrence. The agency will continue to work on the backlog in the old system to avoid delays, he said.

The new system likely won’t be up and running for the spring semester, Lawrence told the panel. He also didn’t want to set a final date for completing the overhaul to avoid “until we have [more] certainty.”

His answer, however, didn’t inspire lawmakers’ confidence.

“Just because you all missed the last deadline … doesn’t mean you don’t get to have a deadline going forward,” said ranking member Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas. “That’s a recipe for disaster if I’ve ever heard one.”

The LTS upgrade has proven especially difficult because it’s connected to numerous other legacy IT systems, said Richard Crowe, a senior vice president at Booz Allen Hamilton, the contractor charged with implementing the new tech. Each system is dependent on the others, so changing one piece can disrupt the entire process, he said.

“From Booz Allen’s perspective, the challenges we’ve faced have come from endeavoring to build something new on top of something very old,” Crowe said. “Many of these underlying systems are passed, at, or very near their intended dates for retirement.”

Lawmakers wasted no time extrapolating the complications with LTS to the agency’s broader troubles with outdated IT.

“It feels like an exercise in futility,” Arrington said. “I feel like there’s a leadership issue, I feel like there’s a lack of strategic management, I don’t think there’s a real plan for the IT architecture of this agency. I think it’s just fundamentally broken.”

Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., also linked the benefits delays to the beleaguered modernization of the agency’s electronic health record system. Banks, who heads the subcommittee responsible for monitoring the multibillion-dollar overhaul, called into question the department’s ability to succeed in any major IT upgrade.

“You seem to dive in without a solid understanding of all the dependencies and touch points in these legacy systems so you wind up inventing and reinventing the plan throughout the project every single time,” he said. “[It’s] as if no one looks under the hood of these systems for years and years until suddenly you’re in there rewiring them like we are today. We have to build up the capacity and change the strategy or this will happen again and again.”