In a tense hearing Thursday, lawmakers demanded that leaders from the Department of Veterans Affairs tell them when a software glitch that’s causing veteran GI Bill benefit payments to be delayed is expected to be fixed. The VA didn’t exactly comply.
“What I would challenge all of us to do… is to come up with specific deliverables so that every person in attendance and watching and the press who are writing about this leave with a very crystal clear understanding of when this will be fixed, how it will be fixed and the mechanisms by which we can hold one another accountable,” ranking member Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, said opening a hearing in the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Economic Opportunity.
“You will not leave this meeting with a date [for completion of the system],” Paul R. Lawrence, undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Benefit Administration, said in reply.
This kind of standoff defined much of the hearing, during which the VA was taken to task for reported IT “issues” that have left the agency struggling to deliver timely education and housing stipends to student veterans.
The challenges arose after the Harry W. Colmery Veterans Educational Assistance Act, or Forever GI Bill, was signed into law by President Donald Trump in August 2017. Two sections of the law, which extends or expands many benefits, change the way the VA pays a monthly housing stipend. Previously the stipend was based on the ZIP code where the veteran lived — now it’s based on the ZIP code where he or she goes to school.
This change, Lawrence said in his testimony, required that the VA build a new piece of software. The agency contracted this task to Booz Allen Hamilton, but deployment “has not gone as planned,” Lawrence said.
The VA initially targeted release of the new software for July 16, then revised this to Aug. 13, Lawrence said. Come Aug. 9, however, the agency knew it wouldn’t meet the deadline and decided to tell schools and student veterans to submit claims the old way. The delay meant, according to Lawrence, that the agency faced processing these claims in a much shorter time frame than normal. And this, in turn, led to the backlog and the delays.
According to Richard Crowe, a senior vice president at Booz Allen who was also asked to appear before the committee to testify, the issue here is legacy IT. The challenges Booz Allen faced in building a new piece of software to fulfill the requirements of the new law are the result of “attempting to build something new on something very old,” he said in his opening statement.
Even in mid-November, the software still isn’t yet complete. The VA is in a testing phase, Lawrence said, and the agency is preparing for the eventuality that it may not be ready in time for spring semester enrollments. In this eventuality, the agency will continue processing claims the old way.
Several lawmakers mentioned the VA’s transient IT leadership as a part of the issue. Subcommittee Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, said the committee feels “powerless” to solve the issue because they don’t know who to hold accountable. “I don’t think you have [a CIO],” he said.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., echoed the sentiment. “I think what’s missing is a competent person who can be held accountable,” he said. The VA currently has an acting CIO in Camilo Sandoval, the controversial former director of data operations for the Trump campaign. President Trump has nominated James Paul Gfrerer to the role, but he awaits Senate confirmation. The agency hasn’t had a permanent CIO since the end of the Obama administration.
This reality notwithstanding, lawmakers weren’t willing to let the witnesses off so easy. Chairman Arrington requested that the agency come up with a timeframe for completion of the system and get back to the committee with that information.
“Give us a timeframe so we can continue to hold you accountable because that’s our job,” he said, by way of conclusion.