Stars and Stripes – VA to restart debt collection after nine-month hiatus

The headquarters of the Department of Veterans Affairs in Washington, DC, in December 2020 / (Stars and Stripes)

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WASHINGTON – The Department of Veterans Affairs will resume billing veterans for medical debts in January, after suspending collections for nine months due to financial hardship caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Last weekend, the department sent letters to veterans, advising them of the balances they owe. Invoices will start arriving in January. Billing is expected to restart at a time when many Americans are on the verge of losing financial assistance, such as unemployment benefits and rent relief, unless Congress can soon reach agreement on further assistance. in the event of a pandemic.

VA press secretary Christina Noel said veterans will have the option of making smaller monthly payments on their debt. Veterans facing financial difficulties should work with the VA to make special arrangements, she said.

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

“We don’t have the power to waive” debt payments, said Richard Stone, an executive in charge of the Veterans Health Administration. “We have delayed collecting these debts until January, and it remains to be seen whether the economy has stabilized to the point where it is appropriate.”

President Donald Trump said on April 2 that the VA would postpone debt collection due to the pandemic. In August, the ministry announced that the suspension would end on December 31. Sinema argued on Wednesday that debt relief should continue for veterans.

Millions of Americans lost their jobs during the pandemic, and food and housing insecurity increased dramatically. The veteran unemployment rate rose in November to 6.3% from 5.9% in October. In March, before the economic effects of the pandemic set in, veteran unemployment stood at 3.8%.

Meanwhile, the pandemic continues to rage in the United States, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicting between 12,600 and 23,000 new deaths in the last week of December. As of Friday, the VA had 17,757 active cases – the most cases it has ever reported at any given time. The department also reported 5,542 deaths in total, an increase of 100 in the past two days.

“Given the current state of the pandemic, I think it’s reasonable to assume that our country’s financial situation will not be any better in January than it is now,” Sinema said. “I think debt relief should be given.”

Joe Chenelly, director of AMVETS, a national veterans organization, said his group had asked Congress to extend the hiatus in debt collection but had not received a response.

“We haven’t heard a lot from the veterans about this yet, so we have to try to figure out how many really know what seems to be happening,” he said. “The nation is not yet ready for this. With new shutdowns already underway and a worse spread expected, it makes no sense to end this protection that many need and rely on. “

To find out their account balances, veterans can call (866) 400-1238 or check the revenue office at their local VA hospital, Noel said. They can pay their balances on pay.gov or by calling their revenue office or a national VA line at (888) 827-4817.

Nikki Wentling



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