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Post-9/11 GI Bill Helps Department of Veterans Affairs Expand Education Benefits
In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the first GI Bill of Rights. Almost eight million veterans took advantage of the education and training benefits it offered, and more than two million veterans bought homes with loans backed by the bill. Millions of veterans from later conflicts benefited from similar measures.
Sixty-four years after the first GI Bill was signed, Congress passed the Post-9/11 Veterans Educational Assistance Act. The Post-9/11 GI Bill expands the educational benefits of the original GI Bill, providing veterans with full funds to attend a public undergraduate program for four years, with additional stipends for housing and books.
"Education is the currency that can purchase success in the 21st century, and this is the opportunity that our troops have earned," President Barack Obama said at a ceremony on August 3, 2009, marking the first GI Bill benefits checks handed out by the Department for Veterans Affairs (VA), a mere 10 months after passage of the bill. He praised the VA team for delivering, under tight time and technology constraints, the bill's benefits to thousands of men and women transitioning to civilian life.
In the audience at the ceremony were MITRE representatives invited to attend by VA. MITRE, which runs a federally funded research and development center co-sponsored by VA, had supported the Post-9/11 GI Bill program throughout the year leading up to the August deadline.
More Generous, More Complex
The Post-9/11 GI Bill replaced the simple reimbursement formulas that VA had been using with a complex calculation of multiple variables. Explains Charlene Honeycutt, a senior member of the MITRE VA team, "Under the old GI Bill, VA paid veterans a lump sum that they used to pay tuition. The new bill requires VA to pay the tuition directly to the school while the veterans receive a housing allowance and a stipend for books and tutors. And the amount of all these payments differs according to the location of the school."
With this new set of requirements, VA estimated it would take 18 to 24 months to develop an automated system capable of generating the benefits. But Congress charged the agency to begin delivering benefit checks within 13 months. The clock was ticking, so VA decided to take a two-pronged approach to meeting its deadline. While one team began designing the new automated system, another team, supported by MITRE, began development of an interim system that would bridge the gap between the legacy system and the new automated system.
The interim solution team broke down all the new provisions of the GI Bill to determine what changes VA needed to make to its existing reimbursement architecture. VA worked with MITRE systems engineers to design business logic and computational algorithms that provided the basis for software tools that claims processors could use to manually generate GI Bill benefits. With the help of these interim tools, VA has processed the claims for 285,000 students and paid out $3.6 billion in benefits since August 2009.
MITRE continues to partner with VA as it develops its automated system. "We're applying the expertise gained from implementing the interim solution to the long-term solution," says Honeycutt. "We're helping the agency understand the requirements for the system while providing them with regular technical assessments of their progress."
Getting the Word Out
While the systems engineers were developing the interim reimbursement system, MITRE helped VA with another interim solution—this time for communications. The department wanted to launch a national promotional campaign to inform and educate veterans on the new educational benefits. But acquisition regulations meant that six months would pass before a marketing firm could be hired—six months when veterans might not realize the full scope of benefits now available to them. So a team of MITRE communication specialists partnered with VA to get the message out.
The first task in developing a communications strategy with VA was getting to know the needs of the department's stakeholders. We interviewed veterans groups, service organizations, and schools as well as VA employees out in the field. MITRE used these stakeholder responses to form an interim communications strategy.
"VA first contacted the claims adjustors out in the field weekly to keep them up-to-date and to hear what their concerns are. VA really did a great job reaching out to the people in the field who were going to feel the effects the most from the four-fold increase in claims that the new bill was going to generate," says Theda Parrish, lead for the MITRE communications team.
Reaching a New Generation
As part of the outreach to veterans, VA also revamped its website (http://www.va.gov) so that users could easily navigate to the relevant details of the Post-9/11 GI Bill program. Realizing the ever-growing impact of social media on its sponsors' business practices, the MITRE team worked with VA to extend its online efforts beyond the website.
"Because of the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the veteran population is much younger than before and, for the first time, the Internet and social media have a significant role in the way this generation of veterans interacts," says Julia High, one of MITRE's social media authorities. "We encouraged VA to use the same social media tools that this new generation of veterans was already using."
VA's new Post-9/11 GI Bill Facebook page has been particularly successful. It currently boasts nearly 20,000 fans and creates a venue in which most questions that people post about the new bill are answered, often by other veterans, within an hour. VA staff regards it as a critical tool in quickly identifying and responding to issues that veterans raise regarding the GI Bill.
MITRE continues to work with VA on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, providing a wide range of technical and programmatic support. Keith Wilson, who as Director of VA's Education Service is responsible for implementation of the Post-9/11 GI Bill, said: "I have said before, and will say again, VA would not have been successful in meeting this major challenge without MITRE. The MITRE/VA team has faced every challenge with poise, determination, and a can-do attitude. I will always be indebted to everyone involved. The team's efforts have had a direct tangible positive impact on the lives of hundreds of thousands of people."
Most of the MITRE team members are veterans or have family members in the service, and all of them consider it a privilege to work with the dedicated VA staff. "All of us who worked on this project," says Honeycutt, "recognized that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impact hundreds of thousands of veterans, their spouses, and their children by helping VA to successfully implement this bill."
—by Christopher Lockheardt
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