The VA Is Stiffing Countless Vets on Their Benefits
“I’m about to lose everything that I own and become homeless.” Those are the despairing words of Shelley Roundtree, a 29-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan currently living without his stipend guaranteed under the GI Bill. Absent these funds, he’s sleeping on his sister’s couch, often having to choose between marketing classes at Berkeley College in Manhattan and basic necessities. Many nights, he forces himself to sleep, still hungry.
According to NBC News, Roundtree is one of 82,000 veterans currently waiting on tuition and housing payments from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs—the byproduct of a backlog created by the Forever GI Bill of 2017. That legislation expanded benefits for veterans and their families but has failed to provide the necessary IT support for the department to meet its new requirements. As many as several hundred thousand have seen their payments delayed or not delivered at all.
Between a contract dispute over how new housing allowances would be calculated and the VA’s attempts to stress-test an outdated system, the department had delayed informing schools to begin enrolling students in classes. But many universities had waited anyway, believing they’d eventually have to re-enter their students’ veteran certifying information. The result has been a deluge of enrollments the VA is simply unable to process at once.
“This is—to be kind—a train wreck,” Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, tells NBC News. “It’s really frustrating the amount of money that Congress has appropriated for veterans, and this is the way VA has rolled it out. This discussion started over a year ago.”
Scandal has plagued the Department of Veteran Affairs virtually from the moment that Donald Trump was sworn into office. Earlier this year, the president forced the departure of U.S. Secretary of Veteran Affairs David Shulkin—a rare holdover from the Obama administration. That position is currently held by former Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Robert Wilkie. Trump had originally nominated his personal doctor, Rear Adm. Ronny Jackson, but Jackson ultimately withdrew his name from consideration amid a slew of allegations against him, including hostile work practices, drunken behavior and even medical abuse. (Several colleagues indicated that he had earned the nickname “Candyman” for his willingness to dole out prescription drugs.)
In August, an explosive report found that a trio of Mar-a-Lago members, Bruce Moskowitz, Marc Sherman and Marvel Chairman Ike Perlmutter, were secretly running the VA without any form of government oversight. None are elected officials, and their only qualifications would appear to be their proximity to the president. From ProPublica’s Isaac Arnsdorf:
The Mar-a-Lago Crowd [speaks] with VA officials daily, the documents show, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions. They [prod] the VA to start new programs, and officials [travel] to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views. ‘Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring,’ a former administration official said.
Three months later, the department remains in disarray. NBC News reports that as many as 45,000 jobs within the VA have gone unfilled, and that it is yet to replace Chief Information Officer LaVerne Council, who stepped down during Trump’s presidential transition. (The department’s acting CIO, Scott Blackburn, resigned in April.) As for veterans like Shelley Roundtree, they’re unlikely to find relief any time soon.
“Right now Secretary Wilkie and Dr. Lawrence have only been on the jobs for months,” says Patrick Murray, deputy director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “People have been coming in and out of the VA like it’s a revolving door, and this is another example where a lack of consistent leadership causes these problems.”
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