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Education bills won't fall on families

By Rick Maze - Staff writer – Army Times
Thursday Jul 10, 2008  

Families of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan will no longer be slapped with a bill if the member owed money to the Veterans Affairs Department for education benefits he never got a chance to use.

A provision of the war supplemental funding measure, signed into law by President Bush on June 30, not only stops the practice, but also authorizes refunds to any families who, since Sept. 11, 2001, have paid a bill sent by the VA to recoup its overpayment of benefits to a deceased service member.

Most of the overpayments the VA was trying to collect were related to GI Bill educational benefits for National Guard and reserve members who were mobilized while receiving benefits. If a reservist received benefits for a period when he was not attending school or training, the VA considered it an overpayment. Previous law required the VA to try to collect overpayments, whatever the circumstances, which led to families of service members killed in combat being told to pay up — "the wrong thing to do," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, the chief sponsor of the debt-waiver provision.

"Who would have thought that someone who dies serving our country in Iraq and leaves behind a $300 bill due [to the VA] for education benefits — that they were not able to finish because they gave their life in the war — would then get a bill?" Hutchison said June 26 as the Senate was about to pass the bill.

The new law, she said, will ensure that every family who paid a bill "will be reimbursed, and no bill will ever go out again."

Hutchison said VA Secretary James Peake "asked me to introduce a bill so he would not have to [bill families], because he knew it was wrong and that we wouldn't want it being done."

VA officials, speaking on the condition of not being identified, said they were aware of the change in law and are working on plans to make the refunds. Because they don't want to make any mistakes that might compound the insult to families, officials said they want to make sure they pay the right people the right amount.

Hutchison discovered three cases of Texas families billed for overpayments. One family of a soldier killed by a sniper while on his third tour to Iraq repaid the government for a $389 overpayment of GI Bill benefits. The family of another soldier was billed for $2,282 in outstanding loans after the sergeant, who was married with four children, was killed in an explosion on his second tour in Iraq. The third Texas case involved a Marine reservist killed by an explosion in Iraq who owed VA $845.

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