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VA speeds up millions in GI Bill payments

Clark State, Cedarville among colleges that benefit.

The 23,000 Ohio veterans enrolled in the Post-9/11 GI Bill are getting millions to cover the cost of higher education faster than ever, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, thanks to a new paperless system.

It’s a hint of things to come, according to the VA, for when the embattled department finishes transitioning to electronic claims processing for disability benefits as well. By going paperless, the VA hopes to eliminate its massive backlog of disability claims by the end of 2015.

Unlike disability claims, the VA’s handling of the Post-9/11 GI Bill seems to be a success story, with $27 billion in benefits already provided nationally since 2009 to about 938,000 veterans, service members and their families wanting to further their education.

It’s taking an average of just six days for enrolled students to receive payments for tuition and fees with the new automated process, the VA reported recently. It takes around 24 days for a new student to establish eligibility in the program.

“They’re faster than they ever used to be,” said Cynthia Davis, assistant to the registrar at Cedarville University.

Unlike previous GI Bills, tuition for the Post-9/11 GI Bill is paid directly to the schools, which in turn credit the students. Students receive money for housing, books and supplies.

Between Aug. 1, 2009, and Jan. 23, 2012 — the most recent statistics available — Cedarville received more than $1.3 million through the Post-9/11 GI Bill for 65 enrolled students. In all, 304 institutions in Ohio received more than $238.9 million during that period on behalf of 17,974 students enrolled in the new GI Bill, according to VA records.

For at least the first year and a half, Davis said, payments from the VA were slow to be received, taking anywhere from a month to two months. Now, at Cedarville, they’re coming as fast as nine days, she said. Cedarville doesn’t hold students responsible for money it knows is coming from the government, Davis said.

“We would love to have our money as soon as the bill is due, but we know it just takes time,” she said.

Things, however, still aren’t perfect.

At Wright State University, which also doesn’t hold students responsible for money that hasn’t yet arrived from the VA, it’s still taking considerably longer to receive money to cover tuition and fees, university registrar Marian Brainerd said.

At the beginning of the spring semester in January, which is considered a peak time, it took four weeks to receive payment, she said.

“We still have a few students who haven’t been paid for spring yet,” Brainerd said.

During nonpeak times, she said, payment has been received in as quick as two weeks, she said.

Still, Brainerd called the Post-9/11 GI Bill “a wonderful benefit.”

Bill Walker, who’s studying at Clark State Community College to be a physical therapy assistant, spent more than 20 years in the Navy as a combat search and rescue swimmer and loadmaster. He deployed to both Afghanistan and Iraq before his retirement in 2004.

“I was 20-plus years in the military. I’m not a big government proponent,” Walker confessed. “But, I’ll have to tell you, I’ve had zero complaints with the Post-9/11 GI Bill.”

Between 2009 and 2012, Clark State received more than $970,000 on behalf of 169 students.

The Post-9/11 GI Bill is eligible to veterans who served at least 90 days of active-duty service after Sept. 10, 2001, and received an honorable discharge. Full benefits are granted to veterans who served at least three years of active-duty service after Sept. 10, 2001.

It can be applied to either a traditional degree or vocational training.

Walker gets 90 percent of his Clark State tuition paid for through the new GI Bill, he said, which he’s happy with considering that when he enlisted, the GI Bill wasn’t nearly as generous.

Veterans of World War II were provided with education and home loan benefits through the original GI Bill of Rights, known officially as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. The GI Bill was revamped in 1984 to become the Montgomery GI Bill, but, to be eligible, service members had to contribute $100 a month of their pay for the entire first year of service.

With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, which will be available for 15 years after a person leaves the service — five years longer than the Montgomery GI Bill — benefits also can be transferred to spouses or children.

“My experience with the GI Bill has been phenomenal,” Walker said. “I have nothing but good things to say about it.”

In Ohio, 23,000 veterans and their family members are currently taking advantage of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, said Mike McKinney, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services.

“It’s the greatest deal since World War II,” McKinney said. “We want all veterans to take advantage of that.”

Ohio schools big and small, public and private, have students using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, from Ohio State to Wittenberg universities and from seminaries to barber colleges.

“If all their paperwork is together, it all comes together fairly quickly,” said Dana Kapp, a retired Navy chief petty officer who started her new job Monday as the veterans services specialist at Clark State.

Kapp’s position, which is half-time, is new at the school. Clark State wants to recruit more veterans and hopes to even start a veterans organization on campus, she said.

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