BY RICK MAZE FOR NAVY TIMES – The top education official for the Veterans Affairs Department is asking Congress to delay until Aug. 1, 2011, any significant changes or improvements in the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Congress can pass changes now, said Keith Wilson, VA’s education service director, but delaying the effective date of any such changes would avoid interference with the development and deployment of a new computer system that will streamline eligibility decisions and the complicated calculation of benefits.

“VA is working aggressively on a new payment system to support the existing Post-9/11 GI Bill provisions,” Wilson told the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday. Making changes, especially to eligibility criteria, could delay a solution to the claims processing problems, he said.

Delay would come at a cost, however, because some of the changes would have far-reaching effects.

For example, the Senate committee is considering a bill, S 3447, that would make it easier for National Guard and reserve members to earn Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits by ensuring that time spent on active-duty in full-time support of the Guard and reserve, as well as military service in support of federally declared national emergencies, counts toward the time-in-service eligibility requirements for the new GI Bill.

Military officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said many reservists on full-time active-duty are delaying their retirement — which blocks openings for other people — while waiting for this change because they are waiting for the right to transfer education benefits to their families, something they will get only if their service counts toward earning the benefits.

The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, the veterans’ committee chairman, also would make active-duty service members and spouses of active-duty members using transferred benefits eligible for the $1,000 annual book allowance that goes to other student-veterans and would allow the year-old benefits program to be used to pay for vocational and flight training, correspondence classes, apprenticeships and on-the-job training programs that are not currently covered.

Wilson said VA supports these changes, as long as Congress finds a way to pay for the added costs and is willing to make some technical changes in the legislation to avoid potential problems. He said the Obama administration is withholding support for many provisions of the bill until it has a better idea of the cost, and how lawmakers propose to pay for any improvements.

Akaka has talked about trying to pass a GI Bill improvements package through his committee in early August, but when it might become law is unclear. The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee has been preparing its own version of the bill but has yet to discuss specifics.

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