Angela Kargus, a second-year veterinary science student at Kansas State University, had problems with GI Bill payments from the Veterans Affairs Department. (Peter G. Aiken)
Just a week before the start of the fall term at veterinary school, an Army spouse won a 10-month battle with the Veterans Affairs Department, which had threatened to cut off the flow of Post-9/11 GI Bill education benefits given to her by her husband.
After the intervention of a U.S. senator and her congresswoman and a news article highlighting her problems, a VA official called Angela Kargus on Aug. 16 to say the dispute that began when she was overpaid and tried to give the money back had been resolved.
"Let's hope this is the last of my VA woes," said Kargus, wife of Fort Riley, Kan.-based Capt. Brian Kargus and a student at Kansas State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
Kargus said she is relieved the fight is over but remains worried that other people using the year-old GI Bill program could face similar problems.
"This could have been so much easier," she said.
At press time, VA officials were unable to provide details on how many students face the threat of benefits being cut off because overpayments have not been recouped. VA's inspector general is auditing GI Bill records in an effort to determine the scope of the problem and whether veterans are being fairly treated.
Kargus had several overpayment issues, but the nagging one involved the one-time book allowance and four months of living stipends she received erroneously last year.
She tried to get the payments stopped days after she got the first one. But like others, Kargus said she had problems last year when she tried to call a GI Bill hot line established by VA to answer questions.
She said she called as often as 15 times in one day without getting through to anyone. When calls were answered, Kargus said VA workers "were courteous, but did not have the power to do anything about my problems."
"Every time I would call VA and ask them to please stop the payments, I was told that no mechanism was in place to resolve the issue and that I shouldn't send any additional repayments because it would only clog the system," she said.
Kargus said the friendly but unhelpful VA assistance continued through Aug. 9, when she spoke to an employee at the debt management center to try to figure out why she was still being threatened with a cutoff of benefits after repaying the $2,140 she had been told she owed.
Her check had been cashed, but VA officials could not explain what had happened to $791 of the payment.
Kargus said the call telling her that her debt finally was canceled came from Dan Osendorf, who heads the VA's debt management center.
"He assured me my debt was cleared," she said.
He also said the call center employee who told Kargus on Aug. 9 that he couldn't help her "was new and made an error when telling me he could not fix my account."
Kargus is hardly the only person with GI Bill overpayment and repayment problems. The House voted July 28 to set aside $100,000 in the 2011 budget for VA to pay for a report on how it accounts for payments and repayments.
Rep. Baron Hill, D-Ind., said he sponsored the amendment ordering the study after hearing many complaints.
"I understand that VA legitimately requires some payments to veterans and universities to be returned," he said. "There can be instances of a student taking fewer classes than what was originally thought, accidental duplication payments. This is reasonable, to an extent."
The trouble, he said, is that veterans and schools have difficulty getting an accurate account of payments and collections.
"In some instances, this has resulted in VA withholding further Post-9/11 payments to the student in question as they are credited with an outstanding debt, despite having already paid back the necessary accounts," he said, describing a situation exactly like what Kargus faced.
"This is even after the returned checks have been cashed by the VA," Hill said — again, exactly what Kargus said happened to her.
The report requested by Hill, and added to the 2011 VA funding bill by voice vote, would be due by Jan. 1.