VA officials grilled over delayed payments to thousands of student veterans

The seal of the Department of Veterans Affairs is seen in an auditorium on February 5, 2013 at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington.    AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Washington (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.
    A 33-year-old vet went to the VA for help. Hours later he took his own life