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Cost may hinder plan to improve GI Bill

Oct. 26, 2010 - 03:27PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 26, 2010 - 03:27PM  |  
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Tens of thousands of student veterans would benefit from a GI Bill improvement package that is pending before Congress, if only lawmakers can overcome cost issues.

A Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee-passed version of the bill says the changes could cost $1.3 billion over five years and $2.3 billion over 10 years, a price tag that makes it difficult for lawmakers to approve this year.

Funding has been one reason why the Senate committee, chaired by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, held onto the bill after approving it Aug. 5 rather than sending it to the full Senate for a vote. Funding questions also are the reason that the House Veterans' Affairs Committee has not scheduled any votes on its version of the bill.

The cost of the package, S 3447 in the Senate and HR 5933 in the House, derives from a wide range of improvements in the Post-9/11 GI Bill that could make a popular new benefit even more popular.

Some examples:

• About 19,000 active-duty members using Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits would be able to receive the $1,000 annual allowance for books and supplies now denied them, as well as any spouses using transferred benefits.

• More than 131,000 National Guard members whose service has not been recognized toward earning new GI Bill benefits would become eligible, with about 5 percent expected to use the benefits each year.

• Expanded benefits in the bill would help about 6,000 students a year with certificate and nondegree education programs, about 6,800 a year who could take part in apprenticeships, about 780 a year taking correspondence courses and on-the-job training, and about 160 a year who could receive flight training.

• The 105,000 students in private or foreign schools whose tuition and fees are now set by state caps would see benefits increase an average of 16 percent through creation of a single nationwide reimbursement cap.

• Full-time distance learning students would receive a living stipend equal to half of the military housing allowance for the ZIP code in which they live. Exactly how many people this would benefit is not clear because data is skimpy on the number of distance learning students, the number of credit hours they take and whether some who are not currently taking a full course load might take more credits if a living stipend were available.

Bill supporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the package could be modified to cut costs or congressional sponsors may wait until next year to pass the measure, giving them time to try to secure funding. But a delay is risky because it is unclear whether the new Congress that convenes in January will consider veterans education benefits a budgetary priority.

The bill already contains some benefits cuts to offset part of the cost of the new improvements. For example:

• For students taking on-campus classes, those carrying less than a full credit load would receive a reduced monthly living stipend. It is unclear how many people would lose money. Those attending school more than half-time now receive a full monthly allowance, based on the military housing allowance for an E-5 in the ZIP code where the campus is located. This would change so that living stipends are prorated based on the number of credits.

• About 2,900 people a year would lose GI Bill eligibility if released early from active duty on a hardship discharge or for a nonservice-connected medical reason, such as a pre-existing medical condition, if they do not receive an honorable discharge. Current law provides benefits regardless of the type of discharge.

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