The U.S. Navy's Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR) has signed on to help the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) implement the 21st Century G.I. Bill, VA's third implementation strategy in as many months. This new plan, outlined by Keith Wilson, the VA's director of education services, was the focus of testimony on 18 November before the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
Veterans and university administrators must be wondering if VA can implement the bill in time for its August 2009 mandated launch, given the department's abrupt shifts in strategy. In early September, the department first announced plans to have a contractor computerize the new bill's entire claims process. A month later, after veterans' groups and members of Congress complained about that plan, VA reversed course and announced it would use its own resources to implement the bill. Now, a third approach has emerged: use the resources of another federal agency.
Wilson, who talked to Science Careers about VA's implementation plans in September, told the House committee that SPAWAR will provide program management and information technology support that will help meet the August deadline. For the August launch, the VA and SPAWAR will develop a system based on the VA's current benefits-delivery system with extensions to meet the specific needs of the new G.I. Bill.
Wilson says the VA will add some 400 claims specialists to its regional offices to determine eligibility and benefits. They will work with the new computer system to generate the payment authorizations for the Treasury Department (where the money for tuition and other benefits comes from), track benefit usage, and store the beneficiary's claims history.
While this is a short-term solution to meet the initial deadline, VA also envisions a long-term solution with much more automation and fewer people. The long-term strategy, says Wilson, is for "an end-to-end solution that utilizes rules-based, industry-standard technologies for the delivery of education benefits." VA will partner with SPAWAR on this longer-term solution as well.
The new G.I. Bill, for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, provides funds to cover tuition at any public university in the veterans' home states. The previous bill offered fixed payments, which, as tuition increased over the years, covered less and less of veterans' costs. The new bill also provides more generous housing, books, and fees allowances. Science Careers has followed the bill since it passed Congress in June, because of the bill's potential to rapidly diversify the American science and technology workforce.