The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., in December, 2020/

The Department of Veterans Affairs headquarters in Washington, D.C., in December, 2020/ (Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON — The Department of Veterans Affairs is “exploring options” to pause debt collections again after the billing restarted last month.

The debt collection had been stalled for nine months to address financial hardships caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The pause expired Jan. 1.

Dat Tran, acting secretary of the VA, said in a statement Monday that the department was “exploring options to pause federal collections on compensation and pension overpayments, and medical and education-related debts.”

Tran said the VA was “looking at immediate ways” to help. The decision affects about 2 million veterans. The department said updated information would be available as soon as possible, though it was unclear Wednesday when veterans might know.

President Joe Biden signed an executive order Jan. 22 focusing on economic relief amid the pandemic. In a news release, his administration said the order asked the VA to consider pausing federal collections on overpayments and debts.

Instead, the VA on Friday extended a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until March 31. That includes all properties secured by VA-guaranteed loans.

Several lawmakers have called on the VA to reinstate the pause on debt collections. Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., introduced legislation last year to halt the billing until the federal emergency declaration is lifted.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., questioned Richard Stone, acting undersecretary of the Veterans Health Administration, about the issue in December. Stone, who was retained in his role by Biden’s administration, said at the time that the VA didn’t have the authority to waive debt payments. The VA said then that it would make special arrangements for veterans facing financial hardship.

On Monday, Tran said he would work with Congress and veterans service organizations on the issue.

“VA is fully committed to lessening these financial hardships,” he said.

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.

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