Veterans Affairs officials have appealed a federal court ruling granting thousands of veterans an extra year of college tuition benefits, likely delaying final resolution on the issue for at least a few more months.

Department attorneys on Friday filed paperwork to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to consider the case of “BO vs Wilkie,” which centers around VA’s practice of making veterans relinquish their Montgomery GI Bill eligibility in order to receive Post-9/11 GI Bill payouts.

The case could eventually cost the department billions of dollars in new education payouts if the courts continue to rule against VA.

Under current department rules, veterans eligible for both Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill must sign away their rights to one of the education benefits programs in order to access the other.

Typically, veterans opt for the Post-9/11 GI Bill program, because it provides 36 months of the full tuition cost of state schools, plus additional living stipends. Veterans can also transfer the benefit to family members. The total value of those payouts can easily top $20,000 a year, depending on where individuals attend school.

In contrast, the Montgomery GI Bill — the primary education benefit for veterans before 2010 — provided eligible veterans with about $2,000 a month last semester

Federal officials have argued in court that relinquishing eligibility to one of the programs is designed to make sure veterans aren’t doubling up on government benefits.

But last fall, a panel with the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims rejected that argument, saying veterans should not be able to receive both education programs simultaneously but should be able to access a second benefits program after they have exhausted the first.

That would mean another year of college funding for veterans who use up their Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits but still have Montgomery GI Bill eligibility. Under existing federal statute, any government higher education payouts are capped at 48 months.

The full appeals court upheld that ruling in January. VA leaders now want the federal circuit court to weigh in.

That process can take months or years, although plaintiff attorneys in the case said in January they are hopeful the court will consider fast-tracking the matter because of its potential impact on the fall college semester.

VA officials did not offer an official statement on the appeal. The ongoing legal fight has drawn significant interest among outside veterans groups because of the potential thousands of veterans who might suddenly be eligible for additional education payouts if the ruling stands.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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