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Beefing up the GI Bill

7 proposals examine longer dependent eligibility, more help for reservists and PTSD

Dec. 2, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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At least seven legislative proposals are pending in Congress to improve the new GI Bill for large swaths of beneficiaries, including active-duty and reserve troops, wounded warriors and families.

The four-year-old Post-9/11 GI Bill has served 1 million students at a cost of almost $35 billion — but some lawmakers clearly think it could be doing more to serve troops, veterans and their families.

A key focus of some of the new proposals is improving and expanding the ability of troops to transfer GI Bill benefits to family members, a unique feature of the new GI Bill that has made spouses and children eligible to use benefits earned by a service member.

Other initiatives would boost benefits for surviving spouses and reservists and add extra benefits for vets with post-traumatic stress.

Whether any of the ideas move forward depends in large part on money, as the proposals are swimming against the tide of restricted benefits in a time of tight budgets.

When lawmakers overhauled the Post-9/11 GI Bill in 2011 to fix some flaws, they paid for the upgrades by making offsetting cuts in other facets of the program that have left many student veterans unhappy.

For example, tuition reimbursement was reduced for students attending public colleges and universities as nonresidents, and the monthly living stipend that originally was paid during breaks between school terms ended.

But two years later, Congress is still trying to find a way to help nonresident students, looking for a no-cost fix that would require states to reduce tuition rather than have the government pay more.

Still, a number of lawmakers clearly believe the Post-9/11 GI Bill remains a work in progress. Here are the seven proposals — so far without cost estimates — that are in play:

1. Give more time to transfer

Among the many current restrictions on transferring benefits to a spouse or children is one that requires the initial decision to be made while a service member is still in uniform.

Once made, a transfer decision can be revoked later, but the initial decision must be made before separation or retirement.

The Post-9/11 Education Assitance Enhancement Act, HR 3514, sponsored by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., would relax this rule and give service members up to five years after separation or retirement to make their initial transfer decision.

2. Raise age limit for children

Another McDermott bill, HR 3515, would raise the age limit for dependent children to use benefits. Now, children must use transferred GI Bill benefits by age 26. McDermott’s bill, the Increased Age Limit for Post-9/11 Education Assistance Dependents Act, would raise the cutoff to age 29.

McDermott said this would help those seeking advanced degrees.

“These small changes in policy can be a big leg up for a family that needs flexibility on taking advantage of the veterans’ educational benefits they’ve rightfully earned,” McDermott said.

3. Expanded Fry Scholarships

Fry Scholarships, a Post-9/11 GI Bill offshoot, provides full GI Bill benefits to surviving children of troops who died in the line of duty on or after Sept. 11, 2001. Surviving spouses would be added under the Spouses for Heroes Education Act, introduced in the House by Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., and in the Senate by Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore.

Titus’ bill is HR 3441 and Merkley’s is S 1039. When a service members dies, “the least we can do is to ensure their family has the education they need to succeed,” said Merkley, a member of the Senate Military Family Caucus. “We already provide that benefit to the children of our fallen heroes. We should extend that benefit to a husband or wife who often must go back to school to provide a foundation for their family.”

Under both bills, benefits could be used for up to 15 years following the service member’s death, but eligibility would end if the surviving spouse remarries.

4. Help for PTSD vets

To help veterans with mental health conditions who may have difficulty in classes, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., has an amendment to the Senate version of the 2014 defense authorization bill that would give more time to use benefits but reduce monthly payments.

Under Paul’s Amendment 2225 to the pending bill, veterans who have service-connected post-traumatic stress or suffered a traumatic brain injury could extend their 36 months of GI Bill benefits by an extra 18 months. But tuition and living stipends would be reduced to 67 percent of full payments.

5. More benefits for wounded

A similar Senate amendment to the defense bill was filed by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Amendment 2110 would count time spent in medical recovery by National Guard and reserve members as time on active duty, something already done for regular active-duty members on medical leave. This could result in larger Post-9/11 GI Bill payments if the extra months of service take them over various thresholds that grant an increase in payments.

6. More credit for reservists

For National Guard and Reserve members, Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., wants to change how training time is counted to give reserve-component members more credit toward Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

His Amendment 2266 to the Senate defense bill would apply to Guard and Reserve members who served in contingencies such as operations Iraqi Freedom, Enduring Freedom and New Dawn. For these service members, time spent in entry-level and skill training could be counted as active service for the purposes of determining their level of GI Bill benefits.

This extra three to 15 months of service could result in a significant boost in tuition, living stipends and book allowances, which are based on length of service. Someone with 90 days to six months of service receives only 40 percent of the GI Bill payment that goes to someone with 36 months of service.

Udall is pushing this change, he said, because he believes reservists who have served on the front lines deserve the same GI Bill benefits as active-duty members.

7. Make foster children eligible

Foster children would be added as potential beneficiaries of transferred benefits under HR 3600, a measure cosponsored by Reps. Bill Foster, D-Ill., and Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.

The GI Bill Education Benefits Fairness Act is aimed at correcting a problem discovered after about 100 foster children began receiving benefits but were cut off in mid-semester after a review of the law, with families required to repay the money. If passed, this bill would retroactively cover those families in addition to applying to future benefits transfers.

“Children of the men and women who serve honorably shouldn’t be denied the benefits they were promised because of a bureaucratic oversight,” Foster said.

McMorris Rodgers, co-chair of the Congressional Military Family Caucus, said the goal is to treat all children the same.

“We know that when a parent joins the military, it’s not just a job but a family commitment to our country,” she said.

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