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VA AMENDS TRAINING PROGRAM AFTER COMPLAINT

Rep. Gus Bilirakis pointed out it would rule out most of the state's community colleges.

It was one of those "read the fine print" moments.

Scheduled to launch July 1, a Department of Veterans Affairs job-training program for unemployed veterans allowing veterans to get up to a year of training at community colleges, would have excluded schools who offered even one bachelor's degree.

That would leave 23 of Florida's 28 community colleges ineligible to participate, including St. Petersburg College, according to the chancellor of the Florida College System.

But after a complaint by Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, vice chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the VA this week changed the rules of the program. Now it will allow community colleges offering a limited number of bachelor's degrees to take part in the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program, or VRAP.

That makes all 28 Florida community colleges eligible, according to Bilirakis' office.

Veterans between 35 and 60 years old are eligible for VRAP training if they are otherwise ineligible for any other VA educational or training benefits and have not participated in any other government job-training program for half a year.

Earlier in the week, Bilirakis told the VA at a hearing on claims backlogs that he was concerned that the VA was excluding otherwise worthy community colleges. He asked the agency to reconsider.

"Using VA's narrow definition of community college, if a school awarded one bachelor's degree among hundreds or even thousands of associate's degrees, that school would not" be eligible to train veterans, Bilirakis said at the committee meeting. "It is like saying that a bank that offers coffee to its patrons is no longer a bank and is now a Starbucks."

It took 18 hours for the VA to respond with a fix, according to Bilirakis' office.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3432.

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