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Lawmakers urge VA to continue deferring debt collections; agency says it won’t

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 17, 2020

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WASHINGTON – Republican and Democratic lawmakers called on the Department of Veterans Affairs this week to continue its nine-month pause on billing veterans for medical debts after the agency announced it would start collections again in January.

In response to the calls from lawmakers, VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said that while the VA has the authority to continue deferring debt collections, the department will still restart collections after this month. The VA does not have the authority to waive the debts altogether, she said.

The department started postponing debt collections in April because of the widespread job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In August, the VA extended the deferment until Dec. 31. Earlier this month, the VA sent letters to veterans and notified them of their outstanding balances.

“VA could continue to defer veteran debt; however, we do not have authority to waive all veteran debt, so the debt will continue to grow,” Noel said. “VA feels it is in the veteran’s best interest to notify them of a potential debt. If they are unable to repay the debt or if doing so would cause a financial hardship, VA can work with individuals to provide relief based upon their unique circumstance.”

Veterans will be given an option to make smaller monthly payments. Veterans facing hardship should contact the VA to make special arrangements, Noel said.

The billing is scheduled to restart at a time when many Americans are set to lose financial assistance, such as unemployment benefits and rent relief, unless Congress can soon come to a deal on more pandemic aid.

Millions of Americans have lost jobs during the pandemic, and food and housing insecurity have increased significantly. The veteran unemployment rate rose in November to 6.3% from 5.9% in October. In March, before the economic effects of the pandemic took hold, veteran unemployment was 3.8%.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, urged VA Secretary Robert Wilkie in a letter this week to extend the freeze on veterans’ medical bills to July 2021. Ernst said Iowa veterans have contacted her office and explained that because of the ongoing economic fallout of the pandemic, they are not prepared to pay the accumulated bills.

“Many of our Iowa veterans have experienced serious financial hardship during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Ernst said in a statement. “While the VA has acted to help relieve some of those financial burdens, it’s critical we extend this relief.”

Ernst’s letter follows another letter from 33 House Democrats this week. The letter, led by Reps. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and Chris Pappas, D-N.H., said the VA was acting prematurely to restart debt collections. The lawmakers asked the VA to continue deferring bills until the country regains “some measure of economic and employment normalcy.”

“In light of the currently deteriorating COVID-19 metrics – with cases, hospitalizations, deaths and income insecurity on the rise – we believe your decision to resume collections in January of 2021 needs to be revisited,” they wrote.

To learn their account balances, veterans can call (866) 400-1238 or consult the revenue office at their local VA hospital, Noel said. They can pay their balances at pay.gov or by calling their revenue office or a national VA line at (888) 827-4817.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling