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Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., seen here at a Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, 2020, urged VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to waive veterans’ filing deadlines that – if not met – could result in loss of VA benefits.
Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., left, and Jerry Moran, R-Kan., seen here at a Capitol Hill on Feb. 5, 2020, urged VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to waive veterans’ filing deadlines that – if not met – could result in loss of VA benefits. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump promised the Department of Veterans Affairs would extend veterans’ deadlines for disability benefits and postpone any debt collections as the country grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump made the vow during a briefing at the White House on Thursday evening. The extension is an effort to lessen the financial effects of the pandemic on veterans.

“We take very good care of our veterans,” Trump said. “At my direction, Secretary (Robert) Wilkie will use any authority at his disposal to extend deadlines for benefits and postpone debt collections.”

The announcement came after Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., urged Wilkie this week to waive veterans’ filing deadlines that – if not met – could result in loss of VA benefits.

The senators, who lead the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, argued that veterans are some of the most vulnerable to the virus because of their age and underlying health conditions. They should not be leaving their homes to receive help with their complex benefits paperwork, they said.

Moran and Tester asked Wilkie to delay all deadlines by 180 days. It was uncertain Friday how long the VA might extend the filings.

“Veterans may feel paralyzed with anxiety and fear over this pandemic and they should not be penalized for missing deadlines when their focus should be on maintaining their own health,” Moran and Tester wrote. “Veterans also may not have access to their representatives to help guide them through the complicated claims and appeals process during this national emergency.”

The crisis was worsening in the United States on Friday. More than 250,000 Americans had tested positive for the virus and about 6,000 people had died. The economic downfall was also becoming more apparent, with widespread job losses and an unprecedented number of unemployment claims. The number of Americans filing for unemployment hit 6.6 million last week, adding to the 3.3 million filed the previous week.

The Bob Woodruff Foundation, a nonprofit that aides post-9/11 veterans, released a report this week that found the pandemic could disproportionately affect veterans.

A significant number of veterans in the workforce are employed by industries most likely to experience immediate layoffs, researchers found. The social isolation and economic impacts could also negatively affect veterans with pre-existing mental health issues and create a surge in demand for mental health resources that are already challenging to access.

The foundation estimated that veteran unemployment could reach the highest it’s ever been in the post-9/11 era.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday a rise in unemployment from 3.5% in February to 4.4% in March. Veteran unemployment increased from 3.6% to 4.1%, the bureau reported.

The increases reflected the effects of the coronavirus and efforts to contain it, bureau officials said. The numbers are expected to be more stark for the month of April, when the statistics will reflect a full month under the country’s social distancing rules.

Wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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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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