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VA to restart debt collections after a nine-month pause

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 11, 2020

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs will start billing veterans again for medical debts in January, after pausing collections for nine months because of financial hardships caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last weekend, the department sent letters to veterans, notifying them of the balances they owe. Bills will start arriving in January. 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.

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said veterans will be given an option to make smaller monthly payments on their debt. Veterans facing financial hardship should work with the VA to make special arrangements, she said.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., questioned VA officials about the decision to restart billing during a Senate hearing Wednesday.

“We do not have the authority to waive” debt payments, said Richard Stone, executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration. “We have delayed the collection of those debts until January, and it remains to be seen whether the economy will have been stabilized to the point where that’s appropriate.”

President Donald Trump said April 2 that the VA would postpone debt collections because of the pandemic. In August, the department said the suspension would end Dec. 31. Sinema argued Wednesday that debt relief should continue for veterans.

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%.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to rage throughout the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicting between 12,600 and 23,4000 news deaths during the last week of December. On Friday, the VA had 17,757 active cases – the most cases it has ever reported at one time. The department also reported 5,542 total deaths, an increase of 100 in the past two days.

“Given the status of the pandemic right now, I think it’s reasonable to assume the financial situation in our country will not be better in January than it is now,” Sinema said. “I believe debt relief should be granted.”

Joe Chenelly, director of AMVETS, a national veterans’ organization, said his group has asked Congress to extend the pause in debt collections but has not received a response.

“We haven’t heard much from veterans on this yet, which has us trying to determine how many really know what seemingly is coming,” he said. “The nation is not yet ready for this. With new shutdowns already occurring and worse spread being forecasted, it makes no sense to end this protection many need and are relying on.”

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