After A Tough 2018, The VA Looks Ahead to Fulfill Promises Made To Veterans

Photo by Angela Scott

Twenty Eighteen was not a kind year to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Unfortunately, this also means that it was not a kind year to some of America’s veterans. The ousting of the VA Secretary for ethics violations, to a technical problem which denied many student veterans the housing allowance which they need to pay bills, shows that the VA hasn’t been able to rid itself of its troubled past.

There is some controversy surrounding the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin. Shulkin was fired by the Trump Administration because of ethics violations stemming from an official visit to Europe in which he brought his wife along. The couple treated it as a vacation according to reports, and they used government funds for their pleasure.

According to Shulkin, however, this was not the reason for his firing.

“There was nothing improper about this trip, and I was not allowed to put up an official statement or to even respond to this by the White House. … I think this was really just being used in a political context to try to make sure that I wasn’t as effective as a leader moving forward,” said Shulkin in an interview with NPR.

Shulkin is referring to the thought that the Trump Administration was hamstringing him in order to fill his place with someone who was pro-privatization of the VA. Meaning that healthcare for veterans would become a for-profit enterprise.

Robert Wilkie, current Secretary of the VA –since taking office– has been implementing the Mission Act, which takes the place of the Veterans Choice Program. The Mission Act is designed to give patients more options when it comes to treatment. For instance, if a veteran lives in rural Oregon and the nearest VA hospital is 300 miles away the veteran can opt for a closer hospital, and their healthcare will still be covered.

Not all agree with the changes, however.

“This is nothing short of a steady march toward the privatization of the VA. It’s going to happen piece by piece by piece until over a period of time there’s not much in the VA to provide the quality care that our veterans deserve,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders.

In another separate incident the VA again made national headlines for a massive computer system failure that has led to possibly tens of thousands of veterans under the GI Bill to be without payment for housing and other bills. This problem arose out of the implementation Colmery Act or the Forever GI Bill.

The Forever GI Bill was signed into law last August, and it was starting to go into effect. However, the new systems being put into place could not be handled by a decades old platform –resulting in missed payments, overpayments, and short payments.

According to a VA spokesperson, in October alone, 1,000 student vets called a VA hotline for immediate financial help.

This glitch put new VA Secretary Wilkie on the spot. Wilkie, according to an NBC report, told congressional staffers that the VA would not pay back student vets who had either not been paid at all, or have not been paid their full housing stipend.

Veteran Financial Aid Certifying Officer for LBCC, Megan Pickens-Lloyd, has seen some students grapple with late payments. She has worked with veterans to get their financial aid issues worked out, but believes the VA should do a better job of holding their end of the bargain.

“This was a law that was passed, they had plenty of time to implement it. It’s one thing to drop the ball, but they need to go back and get it right,” said Pickens-Lloyd.

Since the NBC report, Wilkie has changed his tune, “Although VA has encountered issues with implementing the Forever GI Bill on Congress’ timeline, we will work with lawmakers to ensure that — once VA is in a position to process education claims in accordance with the new law — each and every beneficiary will receive retroactively the exact benefits to which they are entitled under that law,” Wilkie said in a statement.

The VA has now backtracked, focusing on updating their platforms so that they will be better equipped to handle the system changes that caused the failure in the first place. While the Forever GI Bill has many well intended and much needed expansions to veterans education benefits, the VA will have to slowly roll out the changes in order to prevent further disruption.

“I got lucky,” said Clay Ford, a student veteran attending LBCC. “My girlfriend helped me out and covered the cost, because we had prepared for the situation. If not for her, I would have been out of luck.”

Fortunately, for military families and veterans, the government shutdown –which started before Christmas– will not be affecting them. Congress has funded the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense through September 2019.

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