The Department of Veterans Affairs is extending relief to veterans who may be struggling to repay benefit debts due to financial hardship.
500,000 veterans owe the VA money tied to disability compensation, non-service-connected pension payments and education benefits. Those veterans can apply to have required payments suspended through the end of 2022, a temporary hardship exemption, the agency announced Monday. Notices of the option will be mailed in debt notification letters beginning in September.
"Helping veterans manage, pay off, and -- in some cases -- eliminate their debt is one of our top priorities," VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a press release Monday. "Extending this hardship suspension is a key part of that critical effort, and it will help ease the burden for veterans who are living with debt."
The VA says that the two most common forms of debt are created from outstanding health care copayments or benefit overpayments -- a debt where the VA pays more than what the veteran is entitled due to error, paperwork backlog, or the veteran not reporting a life change that may affect their benefit status.
Veterans often find the paperwork confusing, and the debt can come as a surprise meaning many haven’t been saving the additional funds and don’t have money available immediately to repay the VA.
The debt payment suspension program -- part of a number of efforts by the VA aimed at reducing veterans' financial burdens during the COVID-19 pandemic -- was previously set to expire at the end of September. As the VA restarted collecting debts last year, it offered the "hardship suspension" option to veterans who applied for it.
Roughly 6% of veterans with benefits debt have received an extension so far, according to the VA. With so few enrolled in the program, some veterans may not know about the option and could be surprised to see a debt collection letter in the mail if they haven't opted in.
Jonathan Hill -- an Army veteran who earned a Silver Star for his actions during the now infamous battle of Kamdesh where an estimated 300 Taliban fighters descended on Combat Outpost Keating -- received one of the letters a day before the VA announced a continuation of the debt relief option.
The letter, reviewed by Military.com, stated he owed the VA $18,358.61.
"The letter was very vague with no explanation of why or when this took place," Hill, who also took shrapnel from a rocket propelled grenade during the attack, told Military.com over email.
"It goes into great detail about how you can pay the new debt," he said. "But very little about how you can dispute it and that they have already set up a 'payment plan.'" Hill said he started reaching out to anyone who may have experienced this same issue and was unsurprised to find other veterans who had experienced similar debt issues.
Hill -- and three other veterans who Military.com spoke to -- didn't know about the hardship program.
After a collective hour plus on the phone with various VA representatives, Hill said he discovered the debt was created when the VA removed his spouse from his benefits.
"[The representative] said it was due to me not responding to a letter verifying my dependent status" -- a letter he never received, he told Military.com. "And that I would need to call the benefits office to fix the situation and still apply for an appeal."
While his marital status had not changed over the last 10 plus years, Hill said that because the VA could not verify it, they requested recoupment for her benefits dating back to when he first received compensation in 2013 "like she never existed."
Hill told Military.com his situation had been fixed for now after making phone calls, including a conversation with the VA Benefits Office. But the experience left him concerned and wondering how many other veterans are struggling to get assistance when they receive notifications of owed debt.
"How many like me are not getting these letters and not having the opportunity to respond or dispute?" he said.
The VA press release said the debt notification letters being mailed in September will include information about repayment plans, the suspension option, and other debt repayment options.
For those who have already received a letter, like Hill, it means they likely haven't enrolled, according to Randal Noller, a spokesperson for the VA.
"Veterans who previously requested a temporary hardship suspension for their benefit debt through Sept. 30, 2022, will automatically have their suspension extended until Dec. 31, 2022," he told Military.com in an email.
Noller told Military.com that veterans or beneficiaries can contact the VA's Debt Management Center to determine eligibility for hardship debt relief -- "no paperwork required," he added.
He also said that veterans can access and manage their debt information on the VA's website or by calling the DMC at 1-800-827-0648.
-- Drew F. Lawrence can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @df_lawrence.