DENVER, CO - APRIL 03: U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) (L) and Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (2nd R) greet attendees before U.S. President Barack Obama addresses gun control issues during a speech at the Denver Police Academy on April 3, 2013 in Denver, Colorado. Obama commended Colorado's newly passed gun control laws. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
KUSA - Patrick Brown, a program manager for the University of Colorado Veteran's Student Services, sees two students a day who are worried that they won't be able to stay in school.
The reason? Debt caused by clerical errors on the part of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"The VA will say to the student 'we gave you $5,000 too much, you have to give the money back during the next pay period,'" Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said. "For somebody who's going to school full-time, who's a veteran, who's trying to make a house payment and support their family, finding out that they have to pay $5,000 back right away, even though it wasn't your fault, could mean the end of your education.
That's why Bennet is introducing a bill this week that would allow those students to pay the debt back later in their education, rather than within the 30-day period currently used by the VA.
"The federal government gets its money back, the VA gets its money back, but our students aren't at risk of dropping out because of a mistake the government made," Bennet said.
Bennet wrote a letter to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki in November, urging him to reassess how the VA collects debts caused by over-payment. In a survey of veterans at Colorado univerisities, Bennet found that two out of three respondents reported an issue with education benefits.
Brown says he believes the legislation will take one more thing off of students' plates. He said students usually learn that they owe the VA money sometime near the end of the semester - a time when they're trying to register for classes and study for exams.
"I think it would help them tremendously in terms of their stress levels," Brown said. "That's one less thing they have to worry about."
Under the current system, if Brown finds out that a student owes the VA money, he can sometimes work with students to get them an advance or take out short-term loans.
Bennet is expecting bi-partisan support for the bill. While he said that it fixes one problem, he admits that when it comes to veterans, there is still more work to be done.
"If I put everyone in my office who works for me in Colorado in Washington, and I put them on veteran's casework 24/7, they would be occupied because the systems are not working as well as they need to, they're not as responsible as they need to be for our veterans," Bennet said. "...This is a small first step, but it could make a huge difference to a lot of our returning veterans."
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