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The headquarters building of the Department of Veterans Affairs as seen on June 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

The headquarters building of the Department of Veterans Affairs as seen on June 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Carlos Bongioanni/Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs said Thursday it would pause debt collections again after billing restarted in January.

This time, debt collections will be stalled through Sept. 30 to provide veterans with financial relief during the coronavirus pandemic. The decision affects about 2 million veterans who owe medical copayments or benefit overpayments.

“My top priority right now is to do everything in our power to help veterans, caregivers and their families get through this challenging COVID-19 pandemic,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “VA will continue to find ways to provide real relief to 2 million veterans and their families as we fight through this health crisis together.”

The department said it would contact veterans to notify them about debts and inform them of their options, which include suspending payments or extending repayment plans.

Debt collection was stalled for nine months before billing restarted Jan. 1. Two days after his inauguration, President Joe Biden signed an executive order that asked the VA to consider pausing federal collections on overpayments and debts.

At the start of February – before McDonough was confirmed as secretary – the department said it was “exploring options” to pause collections again.

Several lawmakers had called on the VA to reinstate the pause. Last year, Rep. Chris Pappas, D-N.H., introduced legislation to halt billing until the federal emergency declaration was lifted. Pappas and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, applauded McDonough’s decision Thursday.

“As veterans across the country continue to suffer from the severe economic consequences of this pandemic, the last thing they need is a call from a debt collector,” Pappas said in a statement. “In addition to dealing with COVID-19, all too often our veterans also face unexpected debt collection from the VA, sometimes due to overpayments through no fault of their own. That is why I have been fighting for a suspension of VA debt collection for the duration of this crisis.”

The VA suggests that any veteran with questions about benefit overpayments call 800-827-0648 for more information. For veterans with questions about medical copayment debt, contact the Health Resource Center at 866-400-1238.

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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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