VA officials grilled over delayed payments to thousands of student veterans

Ongoing error affects more than 10,000 veterans

By CNN'S MAEGAN VAZQUEZ CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie

(CNN) - Thousands of student veterans have still not received education and housing payments from the US government due to a series of glitches plaguing the Department of Veterans Affairs' information and technology system, top VA officials confirmed during a congressional hearing Thursday.

The errors, which were brought to the attention of VA officials as early as April, continue to affect more than 10,000 veterans, who have gone more than 30 days without receiving their monthly stipends under the GI Bill, which are used by many to pay rent and other bills.

Problems first arose after the VA started to implement the Forever GI Bill, a measure passed by Congress and signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2017, to "enhance or expand education benefits for Veterans, service members, families, and survivors."

The legislation did not address the VA's antiquated IT system used to account for those changes, and the department's failure to implement changes to that system has resulted in a cascading series of errors affecting the distribution of housing allowances to veteran students.

And the VA is still working to catch up with the backlog of claims, which stands at nearly 73,000.

While officials noted that most of those pending claims are less than 30 days old, they acknowledged that more than 1,000 veterans have waited over 60 days for their GI Bill payments and nearly 10 times that amount have seen their stipends delayed for more than a month.

"For today, it is 1,000 claims that are pending over 60 days ... we have a little over 10,000 that are between the 31- and 60-day mark," VA Director of Education Service Robert Worley testified at the hearing before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity when pressed on the issue by the subcommittee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas.

"We've worked many thousands of claims -- in that ballpark. We've focused on older claims, especially over the last two months, to make sure those numbers have come down, and they have come down," he added.

During a White House event Thursday afternoon, Trump cited the expansion of the GI Bill as a point of success in his administration's efforts to modernize the VA.

"(A) crucial element to our veterans agenda is improved access to education. Last year, I signed legislation to allow every veteran to use their GI Bill education benefits at any point in their lives," he said.

But the scene on Capitol Hill did not reflect the progress Trump sought to portray.

Grilled by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, VA officials were able to provide little clarity as to when the IT problems will be fixed, how much the issue is costing US taxpayers and how many veterans will be severely affected.

"I'm asking myself, are we destined to live with these IT problems regardless of how much taxpayer money we invest? It's embarrassing. It's shameful," Rep. Lou Correa, a California Democrat, told the panel.

O'Rourke echoed that concern and highlighted the need to establish a firm timeline to resolve the issues.

"Not having a deadline going forward is a recipe for disaster if I've ever heard one," he said.

The details that were provided, however, offered little encouragement to lawmakers who laid bare their frustrations over a myriad of issues facing the second-largest federal agency and prompted Rep. Jodey Arrington, a Texas Republican, to call efforts to overhaul the VA an "exercise in futility."

"We're frustrated. We feel powerless up here because we've given you money, given you authority, asked you if you needed anything else. The veterans, I think, feel powerless, too. They're trapped in this bureaucracy and can't get out of it," he said.

VA officials did little to reassure lawmakers that the department's leadership is doing enough to address the problem.

"This administration promised to clean up the culture of bureaucratic incompetence inside the VA. Based on this testimony today, I don't think they've made a lick of difference," said Rep. Mike Coffman, a sentiment echoed by the Colorado Republican's colleagues on both sides of the aisle.

One of the major issues raised by lawmakers was that of accountability at the VA, despite the presence of top department officials at the hearing.

Earlier Thursday, an aide working for the committee confirmed to CNN that Worley, one of the key witnesses called to testify, had been reassigned prior to his appearance on the Hill.

Worley still presented his testimony but members of the subcommittee suggested that his appearance was merely an effort to deflect attention from those who should truly be held responsible.

"We have heard that Worley has been looking to leave for a while, so it looks like VA is just using his preplanned departure as a way to save face over the GI Bill fiasco by pointing to him as someone they got rid of," the same committee aide told CNN, echoing comments from various lawmakers including the potential incoming chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California.

"There were a lot more people responsible for this than just Rob Worley," the aide said, questioning why other officials had not been held accountable as well.

NBC News first reported on the payment process and Worley's reassignment.

VA spokesperson Curtis Cashour said that Worley "has been selected for a senior executive service position as executive director of the Houston VA Regional Office" but will "continue to serve as executive director of VA's Education Service until early January."

He also noted that Worley "chose to take this opportunity to lead in a challenging capacity after his years of service at VA central office."

But both Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee made clear that they wanted to hear from the individual leading the VA's Office of Information Technology, Camilo Sandoval -- who's also the former director of data operations for Trump's 2016 campaign. Sandoval came to the VA after working at the Treasury Department and reportedly clashing with staff there.

The VA did not respond to CNN's inquiry asking if Sandoval would comply should lawmakers call him to testify under oath.

Copyright 2018 by CNN NewSource. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.