The Department of Veterans Affairs plans to repurpose $243 million of its emergency coronavirus funding to support the modernization of systems supporting veterans’ education benefits.
As more higher education institutions take courses online for the foreseeable future, the VA realized it too will have to make adjustments in the way it processes veterans’ educational benefits claims under the GI Bill, VA officials said Wednesday. Unfortunately, they hadn’t anticipated this sustained virtual learning environment in their original justification for emergency funding in the CARES Act, which Congress passed early into the pandemic in March.
“COVID-19 really accelerated the need for this,” Charmain Bogue, executive director of VA education services, testified in a hearing before House Veterans Affairs subcommittees. “We saw education institutions fundamentally change the way they’re operating from in-person to online modalities. So the need is now for us to modify our systems to adjust to this new environment.”
VA Undersecretary of Benefits Paul Lawrence said the Veterans Benefits Administration got “$13 million or $14 million” under the CARES Act for personal protective equipment. “We couldn’t anticipate how the universities and education [institutions would respond], or we would’ve asked for more,” he said, adding that he and Bogue then went to VA and Office of Management and Budget leadership to get its blessing.
VA has been working to modernize its GI Bill benefits systems since 2018, when new statues in the 2017 Forever GI Bill sparked chaos within VA’s systems for education benefits, leaving some veterans without the funding they were entitled to for housing.
Beyond the SaaS acquisition
While the department has an acquisition strategy in place to modernize the existing environment of legacy education benefits systems and sent out a request for information on commercial software-as-a-service solutions last month, COVID-19 forced the VA to reconsider the future of education and how the Digital GI Bill system, as it’s called, will reflect that.
“In a matter of weeks, our entire education system converted to an online environment,” Bogue said. “We thought this was the time to [reprogram] the CARES Act funds to … modernize our systems because there’s a direct correlation to COVID-19 and what’s happening in our country right now.”
Of the $243 million the VA is asking to be reprogrammed, $198 million of it will go to VBA to fund the acquisition of the SaaS solution, and the rest will go to VA’s Office of Information and Technology to support the modernization on the backend, Bogue said. The VA received $19.6 billion in the CARES Act. About $2.15 billion of that went to IT support of the department’s response to the pandemic.
Now it all depends on congressional appropriators to approve of the reprogramming.
Representatives present Wednesday expressed support mixed with hesitation, as they weren’t completely comfortable with the VA reallocating funding meant for medical relief to an education-related IT modernization project, even though the department made the case the need is driven by COVID-19.
“These issues existed, as we all know, long before COVID … I hope that we don’t use COVID emergency assistance as a piggybank for other things that don’t deserve funds,” said Rep. Mike Levin, D-Calif.
Rep. Susie Lee, D-Nev., chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Subcommittee on Technology Modernization, said the problem has been “plaguing the department for decades” and “this should have been budgeted and planned for a long time ago.”
Indiana Republican Jim Banks, however, said he is comfortable reallocating some of the funding VA didn’t use responding to COVID-19. “It could have a demonstrable impact, and the need is compelling,” Banks said, adding that “we need to be persistent in our oversight, and that starts now.”