Pima Community College’s faulty record-keeping for ex-military students is coming under scrutiny from one of America’s most high-profile veterans, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Meanwhile, new details are emerging about the financial headaches the college’s errors have caused and the potential cost to local taxpayers to undo past mistakes.
McCain is urging PCC to act quickly to help veterans after his office received several recent complaints from former military personnel. They now face federal demands to repay education benefits they received in error after the college gave bad information to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Scores more veterans who studied at PCC could soon receive similar debt-collection letters from VA. The files of about 2,800 who enrolled in the last four years or so are now are being re-examined in an audit dating to 2010, when the problem was detected, college officials said.
When PCC recently checked the first 400 of those files, 157 mistakes were detected — an error rate of nearly 40 percent.
“Immediate action to remedy this widespread problem is essential,” McCain wrote this week in a letter to PCC Chancellor Lee Lambert.
Lambert is pledging to help those negatively affected. In some cases, the college may reimburse the VA for wrongly dispensed aid so veterans don’t end up on the hook for it, he said.
“I’m committed to making things right with veterans,” Lambert said in an interview Tuesday. The school has scheduled two open houses for those who received VA debt letters to try to get a better handle on the need for help.
The total dollar amount of wrongly dispensed aid won’t be known until the current audit is done. But a previous, more limited review showed that in one year, 2012, the VA mistakenly paid out at least $67,000 to veterans who attended PCC.
The college failed to notify the VA promptly when veterans quit school, switched programs or made other changes that affect benefit payments.
Staff members from McCain’s office have met repeatedly with Lambert since April after learning through news reports that PCC had been temporarily banned from enrolling new student veterans.
The Arizona Department of Veterans’ Services recently lifted that ban after the college came up with fixes to protect future student veterans. But that didn’t fix the problem of what to do about those affected by past mistakes.
Lambert said he’s aiming to have the audit of all veterans’ files done before Oct. 1, when the next federal budget year begins. Arizona’s veterans department is providing ongoing scrutiny of the effort, officials there said Tuesday.
Lambert, an Army veteran, said he’s saddened by the problems the mistakes have caused for those who served.
“It breaks my heart that the college neglected its obligations,” he said.
“Veterans shouldn’t have to pay for the mistakes of the institution.”