The following is a guest post by John Bisges, MD, a radiology PGYIII at the University of Mississippi who previously served three years as a flight surgeon in the USAF. John contacted me with a question a few months ago, and although I'm not sure I ever really answered it, I was able to talk him into submitting a guest post on how he is using his GI bill to supplement his residency pay. I hope you enjoy it.
The transition from active duty to civilian life can be a difficult one, especially when a young physician is returning to residency training. One of the stresses is the substantial salary reduction as a resident. Fortunately the GI Bill can be used in residency or fellowship training, and can be a significant help in easing the transition into residency training.
Two Types of GI Bill
There are a couple of things a young physician should do regarding the GI Bill well before leaving active duty. The first is to make a decision as to whether he will use the Post 9/11 GI Bill or the Montgomery GI Bill. Either one will pay benefits to physicians in residency training in the form of a monthly stipend for living expenses. The Post 9/11 GI Bill appears to be more advantageous to the typical active duty member leaving the military for college, since it provides more complete coverage of tuition and fees and pays them directly to the school. For the future resident who will not be paying tuition, this advantage does not matter. A further difference is that enrollment in the Post 9/11 Bill is free, whereas the Montgomery GI Bill requires an enrollment fee of $1200 while on active duty.
The second thing to do prior to leaving active duty (at least if you plan to use The Montgomery GI Bill), is to take advantage of the buy-up program. The Montgomery GI Bill offers an additional feature that makes it more attractive for the resident physician: a buy-up program. If you put in $600 before leaving active duty, you can have $150 added to your living stipend every month for the full duration of your GI Bill benefits (36 months). That’s $600 for a $5400 payoff. Tough to beat that kind of investment. The important thing is that you must do the buy-up while on active duty. I recommend visiting your base’s finance department and setting it up to have it deducted from your paycheck, and keeping a copy of the receipt for your own records.
Make Sure the Program Qualifies for GI Bill Benefits
Once you’ve made the choice of which Bill you would like to receive, you will need to check the VA’s website to see if your school is registered with the VA as an approved education program. Virtually every school in the country is; however if your residency is a small community program, getting it registered as an approved education program is not onerous and well worth your time.
Once you’ve done the search for your program, you will be provided with a list of certifying officials at your school. These are the people who will be completing your paperwork once you arrive at your program and sign your residency contract. Once your residency contract is signed and in hand, you can go to the certifying official to get your benefits paperwork completed. Once in, this paperwork will have to be renewed with your certifying official annually for every year you are in residency.
After completing your paperwork, you will be enrolled to the VA W.A.V.E. website. This keeps track of your benefit information. Every month you will have to visit this website and confirm that you were enrolled in your program for the previous month. Once you do, a paycheck will arrive in your bank account from the US Treasury about a week later. The check is completely tax-free.
Be Careful Paying Licensing/Board fees
The Montgomery GI bill does have an option to pay for licensing and board fees. However, every licensing or board fee you use the benefit for consumes a month of your eligibility for benefits. Since these fees are typically substantially less than your typical monthly stipend, using this option is rarely a good idea.
The two GI bills have an important difference on how much they actually pay per month. I remember having a good discussion with one of the finance counselors at my base regarding this since she typically worked with enlisted folk going to college, for whom the Post 9/11 Bill was better since it paid tuition and fees directly to the school, and then gave a housing stipend to you. The Montgomery GI Bill version simply gives all of the money to the member, and trusts them to budget accordingly.
How Much Does It Pay?
For the Montgomery GI Bill there's a set monthly rate for anywhere in the country that increases with inflation each October 1. Since October 2011, it is paying $1473 (+ the $150 buy-up). The Post 9/11 Bill's monthly stipend is equivalent to the BAH for an E5 with dependents at the location of your school (and of course no buy-up program.) For my location in Mississippi, this would only have been about $1100 a month, so the Montgomery GI Bill was a better deal for me. For someone living in New York City though, this BAH would exceed the Montgomery GI Bill's set stipend. When I made my rank list for the match, I also plugged the zip codes in to an online BAH calculator. I was applying mostly to the South and Midwest, so the Montgomery GI Bill was the best option. For someone who is applying to the Northeast or California where housing is more expensive, the Post 9/11 is a better deal.
Qualifying for the GI Bill
You have to have been on active duty for at least 36 months to receive full Montgomery GI Bill benefits. For the post 9/11 Bill you are eligible for benefits if you served on active duty for a total of 90 days after 9/10/2011. Neither bill makes any distinction based on your rank. For instance, if a separating military physician chose the Post 9/11 Bill, it doesn't matter that he left the Air Force as a single O-3; his monthly stipend is still based on the BAH of an E-5 with dependents.
In conclusion, the GI Bill is a great benefit provided to veterans and any young physician returning to training should strongly consider using it supplement their income during their residency years. It really served me well to look into the distinction between the two Bills well before I separated, since I knew that the Montgomery GI Bill would be the better deal wherever I matched. Knowing this gave me the time to maximize my benefits under the Montgomery GI Bill (via the buy-up program) before leaving active duty.
Have you used the GI Bill for medical school or residency? What was your experience like? Any tips you can add in the comments below?