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Momentum builds for GI Bill reform to benefit thousands

The House and Senate veterans' affairs committees are moving with surprising speed and unanimity to correct inequities under the Post-9/11 GI Bill and boost or restore education benefits for thousands of veterans and select groups of dependents and survivors.

Those who stand to gain from GI Bill reforms moving toward enactment include: victims of for-profit colleges that have closed; Reserve and Guard members activated under "12304b orders" which don't trigger GI Bill eligibility; Purple Heart recipients whose wounds resulted in shorter tours and reduced GI Bill benefits, and survivors who qualify for GI Bill Fry Scholarships but are excluded from a Yellow Ribbon feature to cover full tuition costs at private colleges.

Another change would boost GI Bill benefits by another nine months, to a total of 45 months, for veterans enrolled in STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) five-year degree programs. The enhanced STEM benefits would be capped at $100 million annually but still would be the reform packet's most costly provision.

The reform drawing the most attention, however, would not help current service members, veterans or survivors but only future generations. New entrants into the military would begin to earn a "Forever GI Bill" thanks to major veterans' groups and the two VA committees supporting the removal of restrictive language that Post-9/11 benefits must be used within 15 years of exiting the military.

"For the first time in the history of the GI bill," said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, "future beneficiaries will be able to carry these benefits with them throughout their lives."

Extending the same lifetime rule to all veterans eligible for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits was viewed as "prohibitive," said one veterans' group representatives who helped to shape the final package.

In mid-June, the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee held the first hearing on the hefty mix of GI Bill reforms that veteran committee staffs have been working on for months, guided by a "tiger team" coalition of veteran service organizations.

This week the House committee took the lead, unanimously approving and sending to the House floor the first major reform package for the Post-9/11 GI Bill since 2011. It's an amalgam of 17 separate bills and 28 provisions to improve the education benefits. Roe titled the package the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act of 2017 (HR 3218) to honor a former American Legion commander who is credited with drafting the World War II-era GI Bill.

The cost of HR 3218 is estimated at $3.4 billion over 10 years. The VA committees and vet groups had to decide how to cover that cost through a matching cut in VA spending. They settled on dampening for future GI Bill users their monthly housing stipend by adopting the same lower Basic Allowance for Housing (BAH) rate that the Department of Defense uses. In other words, future VA stipends will reflect a series of one-percent caps on annual BAH adjustments that Congress is imposing on the military over five years.

"It's not a cut to anyone and that was important to us," said William Hubbard, vice president of government affairs for Student Veterans of America.

Hubbard and other veteran group representatives lauded HR 3218 during an unusual evening hearing of the House committee last Monday.

"When I first saw the text of this bill I thought: if student veterans sat down to write a bill it would look at this," Hubbard told the committee. It "reflects so many essential solution-oriented provisions that increase access to education, address the inequities of this earned benefit and look forward to the future well beyond our own generation. Passage of this bill will represent a new era for education for veterans."

At the same hearing House members testified on behalf of separate bills they had introduced to address weaknesses or inequities in the Post-9/11 GI Bill and which Roe had agreed to make part of the reform package.

Here are highlights of core provisions in HR 3218 that vet groups believe the Senate committee will embrace too and forward for full Senate consideration:

School Closure Relief – Tens of thousands of Post-9/11 GI Bill users who enrolled in for-profit colleges, such as ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges Inc., saw the schools close, leaving students with depleted education benefits and credits not transferable to fully accredited degree programs.

Congress previously granted relief from for-profit school closures to Pell Grant recipients and other federal aid students. The House reform bill would make GI Bill users whole too, Roe said, "by requiring that any veterans who attended these schools would be able to have any of their credits that were not transferrable to another school fully restored for GI Bill eligibility."

"For individuals going forward," Roe added, "if their school closes, then they will receive back their GI Bill entitlement for the semester that they were enrolled when the school closes as well as a bridge payment for up to four additional months of living stipend," crediting Reps. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and Luke Messer (R-Ind.) for their strong advocacy on this issue.

Reserve, Guard Activated Under '12304b' Orders – Since 2012, roughly 6,000 reserve component members have been activated under orders that allow service secretaries to use drilling reserve forces without an emergency call-up by the president or secretary of defense. Due to a legal glitch, however, such orders do not qualify members for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. The bill would correct this inequity and award GI Bill and other denied benefits retroactively to this population.

Purple Heart Recipients – Until now, service members, particularly reservists, who saw active duty tours shortened by war wounds might not qualify for full GI Bill benefits. The reform bill would provide 100-percent GI Bill eligibility to Post-9/11 Purple Heart recipients back to Sept. 11, 2001, if they served at least 30 days on active duty and were discharged for a service-connected disability. VA would be directed to implement the change by August 2018. The retroactive effect would help about 1500 Purple Heart veterans now ineligible for full GI Bill benefits.

Fry Scholarship Yellow Ribbon Benefits – Survivors and families of fallen service members qualify for GI Bill benefits under the Marine Gunnery Sergeant John David Fry Scholarship. But Fry scholars are ineligible for the GI Bill's Yellow Ribbon program under which VA offers to pay half of private college tuition not covered by the GI Bill if the college waives the other half. The bill would make Fry scholars eligible for this enhanced coverage effective August 2018.

In describing core provisions of HR 3218, Roe said they "only scratch the surface of the benefits that our veterans and survivors will receive under this bill."

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