Sunday, January 13, 2013

Ten Things the VA Doesn't Tell You about Voc Rehab

Voc Rehab is the abbreviated way of referring to Chapter 31 of the GI Bill, titled the Vocational, Rehabilitation, and Employment Program. The purpose of Voc Rehab is to educate disabled veterans so they can enter the workforce after they are honorably discharged. Unlike the Montgomery GI Bill and Post-9/11 GI Bill, it is supposed to be tailored to help veterans who have been physically or mentally disabled due to the time that they spent serving in the military. Unlike the Montgomery GI Bill and the Post-9/11 GI Bill, it is very secretive.

Our efforts to secure funding for Clifton to attend college through Voc Rehab has been a fight in the dark. The VA has purposefully shielded information from disabled veterans by not having an useful website and telling disabled veterans misleading and ambiguous information. And because there are not many disabled veterans using Voc Rehab to attend college, there is not a demand for information like the other GI bills and thus not much information on non-government websites, like Military.com.


This is what the VA has told us or led us to understand, but we later discovered to not be true:

1. The VA tells you that you are entitled to four years of college. But you are not entitled, like the users of the Montgomery and Post-9/11 are entitled to three years of college. You are allowed four years to accomplish your degree plan. If you degree plan will only take you two years, you cannot take pottery classes, or try to start your master's degree,  those last two years of eligibility.


2. You are expected to choose the bare minimum that is required for you to obtain a job. We thought that if he is allowed four years, he should get a double major, minor, or start a master's degree, so that he is best prepared for the job market. That is not what the VA will allow. He is only allowed one major to obtain only a bachelor's degree.


3. You can't get approval for your degree plan from the VA office in the state that you are stationed. The VA office in the state that you are stationed can advise you and give you meaningless approval, but you ultimately need approval from your home state's VA office to receive funds. So, unless you are attending college in the same state that you left to attend basic training, your VA counselor is useless.


4. The VA says that fees are covered by Voc Rehab, but they don't explain the process. We are still not sure how exactly the process works, but we have learned that it is retroactive. Clifton has to pay the fee for his ACT scores and OU application, then submit a form for reimbursement with the receipts.


These are the things that we know we don't know and have been unable to find the answers, since the VA is not transparent about the Voc Rehab program to the very veterans it supposedly seeks to serve.


5. We still don't know the specifics of taking summer classes with Voc Rehab. When Clifton asked his VA Counselor how many classes he needed to take to be considered a full time student, she told him that information is for internal use only.


6. We still don't know exactly what help VETSUCCESS gives disabled veterans. We know VETSUCCESS is a program that partners the VA with the Labor Department to find jobs for disabled veterans. What that means on a practical level, besides providing veterans with two months of stipends after graduation, is a mystery.


7. We still don't know how much funds we will receive and exactly how we receive the funds. We assume that the tuition and fees will be paid directly to the college. We know we will receive a housing stipend based on our location, but how exactly do we get that stipend? We also heard there is a book stipend, but we don't know how much it is or how we get that stipend.


8. We still don’t know the exact process of receiving approval. There is no checklist of documents you need to have. There is no step-by-step guide to maneuver the VA labyrinth. There is no helpful veteran advocates. Everything feels like a neverending series of appointments, with no end in sight.


9. We still don’t know how to get appropriate equipment. The chapter says that you can request equipment that you need for your education, including a laptop. But we don’t know how to request a laptop for Clifton to use for school. When Clifton asked about the laptop, his VA Counselor was the definition of ambiguity.


10. We don’t know if we will be able to accomplish all that they want for us to accomplish in time for the summer session to start. With no real timeline and so many questions left unanswered and no one at the VA taking responsibility for helping disabled veterans, it will take many nights of prayer for us to see this momentous task accomplished.


I have written this information to help others who are going through this process and to reach out to those who may be able to provide us answers. If you are trying to figure out Voc Rehab, are taking classes with Voc Rehab, or are a veteran of the Voc Rehab program, please comment below and share your story.

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11 comments:

  1. If you've already gone through the process, then disregard all of this. If not then this may help a little:

    Have you considered getting a new VA counselor? It sounds like your local counselor either does not have the answers for you or does not want to give them to you. I'm in New York City and my counselor is very straightforward and efficient. If you really are not being helped, then work your way up the food chain until you receive a new counselor.

    To answer some of your questions, to be considered full-time in the summer, that would depend on the length of the summer session. I believe for a 4 week session, 3 credits is the minimum for full time and it goes up, the longer the term is. I'm sure someone could explain that better, though.

    As for requesting items, it really depends on what items he needs and if your counselor will have enough time to process the paperwork and get it to you. For example, I was given a book and supplies voucher to take that covered my books on the spot, so I didn't have to come out of pocket. But there are instances where I may be required to pay first and be reimbursed later.

    As for fees, the school gets the tuition directly. Your housing allowance rate is based off zip code (like any other BAH in the military...nothing new, so I don't understand the confusion!). The only difference is that they base it on the zip code of the school. This money will be direct deposited just like pay should have been in the military, at the end of the month that he actually attended classes. THERE IS NO BREAK PAY, so plan accordingly.

    Getting approval: You'd have to fill out the appropriate forms (can be found on VA website) to request this service. Then you'd be sent a letter telling you to go to an appointment where they'd explain basically everything you just asked about. Then you'd meet with a VR&E counselor one-on-one and they'd discuss any plans and determine if you're approved or not.

    I'm not trying to be rude, but the resources are there. You just need to be patient and seek them out. Like I said before, all of this stuff should be answered after meeting with the counselor, but I'm getting the impression that hasn't happened yet (based off number 8). A large portion of the info can also be found at the VA benefits site.

    My suggestion would be to do some more self-guided research on the topic, as that may something you'd want to be good at before college anyway since that's mainly what it consists of. That and you'll know if your counselor is really trying to "hoodwink" you or whatever. Being armed with knowledge of the program and a strong plan would make it that much harder for them to deny approval!

    Here's the VA e-Benefits VR&E link: http://www.vba.va.gov/bln/vre/

    Take a look around there or just poke around the VA e-benefits main site. There's a ton of info there and it's certainly at least a good place to start.

    Good luck!

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    1. Hello! Thanks for your long comment. This was written in January, so we're way past this stage. You also seem to misunderstand a lot of what I wrote, but that's okay.

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  2. Lisa, I have yet to receive a payment from vocrehab, it's been three months. I can surely use that money. Did you ever receive your payments? If so, how long did it take you?

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    1. My husband, who is the one in Voc Rehab, receives his housing stipend every month for the month that has passed. After three months, you should have either received a check in the mail or in your bank account, if you have signed up for direct deposit. I would talk to my counselor, if I were you. Perhaps they have the wrong address or bank account.

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    2. Thank you very much for this information. I guess I have to speak to her once again about the issue. Would you husband happen to know if chapter 31 retro pays ?

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    3. Chapter 31 doesn't retro pay.

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    4. Thank you Lisa for your help I highly appreciate it.

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    5. If it has been 3 months since you have received your housing or stipends, first check your student account bill. Does it show your payment from the VA has been applied? Answer yes; then it is the VA who has not paid you. Contact the VA hotline. If no, then it is the SCO who has not certified you yet. Contact your school.
      If you have not done so- sign up for direct deposit. There is a link on the VA benefits web page to do it electronically. Direct deposit payments arrive faster. The VA has priority processing for anything done electronically (payments, complaints, enrollments, etc).

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  3. As with all things government related there are some good apples and some nasty apples that can’t get fired from their job.
    Most VA counselors will work with you to obtain your education/rehabilitation goals...there are some exceptions. You can request a new counselor. When in doubt, file an Inspector General complaint or contact your Congressman. They are there to put the VA and the SCHOOL you are attending in check. Make detailed notes about who you contact, and their response to your inquiries (or lack of). If you are repeatedly getting negative responses from your counselor or SCO then you need to report them. You do not have to put up with their behavior. Also, remember you are protected by the American’s with Disabilities Act (ADA).
    - On time payments; First thing anyone getting VA benefits should do is create a direct deposit account with the VA. DP payments get to you faster than checks.
    - The VA counselor will send the school you are attending a VA form 28-1905 (or simply called 1905). This form arrives to your School Certifying Official explaining that you are going to have your school's bill covered by the VA.
    - Getting paid for your registered courses; A School Certifying Official will be the one who sends the VA the necessary info to get your classes paid for and whatever other stipends you may be eligible for. This is called the certifying process. This is something that must be done at the start of every semester/term. It will be beneficial for you to make sure your 1905 is current for your term. You can see this on section B, block 5. Most payments come 30 days after the add drop date. This is your school certifying official’s fault. Reason why, is the SCO doesn’t certify you for your classes until they know for sure you are not dropping the course. You can ask for your SCO to certify you early. This helps get your payments faster to you and the school. Just ensure your SCO that you do plan to attend your classes.
    -Full time status: Your school determines what your full time status is. If you are at an online school and they consider full time to be 6 units. Then 6 units are full time. If you are in a face to face (sit down) class and the school considers 12 units to be full time, then 12 units is full time. Your counselor needs to be reported to the OIG (Office of Inspector General).

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  4. - Supplies; next, contact your School Certifying Official. Build a relationship with them. Have them review your education plan to determine what supplies students need. Your 1905 (section B, block 9) will describe the basic materials you are eligible to bill towards the VA. Next have them scrutinize the courses for materials that they feel you will need to do well in your studies. It will take the certifying officials recommendation to help push your request along. Most VA counselors don't argue with a SCO's recommendation because the VA's goal is to get you to succeed as fast as possible. In VA’s terms; get you self-sufficient and working again.
    If you are pursuing art; you will need a scanner, high end computer, software, etc.
    If you are in the medical field; Microscope, camera, lab kits, etc.
    Management; Laptop, audio recording software, software, etc.
    See the pattern here?
    Your SCO can help convince your VA counselor that the high value materials ARE NECESSARY (key word here) for you to succeed with your rehab education goal.
    If you cannot provide proof of need, you may be denied. Tip: The VA may counter your request for a laptop with a statement like "The Veteran could simply use the schools free computer lab..."or "there is a public library nearby with free computer access..." Tell them NO! You are eligible for Chapter 31 because you have a disability! Not because you are 100% healthy and can walk where ever and whenever you want. [My excuse...because it is true. I have PTSD. I can't be around people for extended periods of time]. A laptop or PC will help you do your work at home or take notes in class without causing you unnecessary pain and discomfort. If you have a physical impairment, then having software like Dragon to help you take notes will help you succeed. Do not take no for an answer. They are there to help you. You just have to show need and counter there solutions.
    There are times when a student will need to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed for the purchase. This is because of VA red tape. The money paid for the item has to switch hands one time. If there is an outside vendor, then it needs to be approved. An example; my school has online biology classes that need labpaqs. The company that sells the labpaqs, sells them from their distribution center. The VA approves of the items and would pay us for them- if the school had them in their inventory.

    Time line to complete your rehabilitation; if you complete your degree in two years and you can’t find employment- you can get back into the program to pursue your next degree. If you have a business plan and can provide proof that working for people is something your disability prevents you from doing, you can start your own business on the VA’s dime. Again, you may have an easy road ahead…or not. You may need to file a congressional with your congressman. Take notes and treat your Chapter 31 journey like a lawsuit. Note who you are speaking to and what they say. Provide counter statements and back up your request with the rehabilitation goal in mind. You are trying to reenter the civilian work force with disabilities you received while serving your country.

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