This story originally published Jan. 22, 2021 at 4:15 p.m. EST. It was updated on Feb. 18 at 5 p.m. to reflect VA's plans to extend the pause on debt collection through September 2021.
After months of calls from veterans, advocates and Capitol Hill lawmakers, the White House approved further extending the pause on veteran debt collection at the Department of Veterans Affairs during the pandemic, affecting as many as 2 million veterans.
On Feb. 18, the department released further details on its plan to halt debt collection for veterans through Sept. 30. Those debts include benefit overpayments and some medical copays veterans may have incurred since April 1, 2020.
“My top priority right now is to do everything in our power to help our veterans, caregivers and their families get through this challenging COVID-19 pandemic,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement Feb. 18. “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.”
VA plans to notify veterans of any existing debts and available relief options, including "making payments, extending repayment plans, waivers, compromises and temporary hardship suspensions," the department announced Thursday.
While President Donald Trump authorized pausing veteran debt collection through 2020, that expired with the new year, and Trump did not order VA to continue that pause, and so VA began efforts to collect those debts before the new administration stepped in. The Biden administration extended the pause of veteran debt collection during the pandemic in an executive order announced Jan. 22.
In the fact sheet for the executive order, the White House outlines the president's request: "Help approximately 2 million veterans maintain their financial footing by asking the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to consider pausing federal collections on overpayments and debts."
Lawmakers praised VA's announcement Thursday, something Veterans Affairs leaders in Congress had pushed for for months.
“No veteran should have to worry about choosing between their health care and providing for their family during a global pandemic,” Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Montana, said in a statement. “Extending debt relief for vets means one less burden for the folks who served our country and need our support during this economic crisis."
Tester said he plans to pursue more healthcare copay relief and another pandemic assistance package to further aid veterans and their families.
“Now is the time for decisive action to provide real relief to our veterans," House Veterans Affairs Committe Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, said. "By heeding the Biden Administration’s call and pausing debt collection, VA will help lessen the financial burden from this pandemic and provide much-needed respite to our veterans.”
Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, who serves on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, introduced legislation at the beginning of the pandemic to temporarily halt collection of outstanding VA debts until the pandemic emergency declaration is lifted.
“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,” said Congressman Pappas. “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 and am glad that VA has heeded our calls to provide support to veterans. This pause on debt collections will provide critical relief and ensure our veterans can focus on their health during these trying times.”
Those with questions about debt related to VA benefits are asked to contact the VA Debt Management Center at 800-827-0648 and those with debt related to VA health care can contact the Health Resource Center at 866-400-1238. Veterans and beneficiaries can also see VA's FAQ on overpayments or submit online requests.