Veterans who are permanently disabled during their military service are owed a double helping of gratitude. Few Americans would argue that point, no matter their place on the political spectrum. Thus, it’s of no particular surprise or controversy that the law calls for the elimination of government student loan debt for those vets. Safe to say nearly all of us who’ve benefited from their sacrifices wouldn’t have it any other way.
The problem has been in the execution.
Tens of thousands of totally and permanently disabled veterans — some estimates put the number as high as 34,000 — still owe the federal government unpaid student loans but, for whatever reason, have not pursued the benefit. More than half are reportedly in default, meaning they haven’t kept up timely loan payments, the Military Times reported last month.
Legislation filed in both houses of Congress, by Democrats and Republicans, would solve this by automating government efforts to ensure the balances on those loans are wiped clean. Bills now pending in Capitol Hill committees should be moved along quickly, lest any of those who are eligible keep making payments or, worse yet, sink further into financial distress.
Not only that, Congress should consider a similar, proactive approach for other benefits due these veterans. Recent reports spurred by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general pointed to a home loan program for which disabled vets were charged fees, even though they were eligible to have those fees waived. Often it didn’t happen because veterans claimed their disability after applying for a loan, then had trouble getting the fees refunded or didn’t bother to ask. The news website Military.com last month reported on the VA’s plan to refund about $100 million in fees, of an estimated $189 million still owed to disabled vets, by this fall.
The student loan program has become fodder for the presidential campaign. On Aug. 7, which commemorated Purple Heart Day, hedge fund manager and Democratic candidate Tom Steyer called out Education Secretary Betsy DeVos for holding out on student loan refunds. “Nothing is stopping (her) from doing the right thing, right now,” he tweeted.
He’s far from the first to seize on this issue. In May the attorneys general of nearly every state and U.S. territory — save Alabama, Arizona and Texas — signed a letter to DeVos calling for the prompt, automatic cancellation of those loans. An Education Department spokesman explained to Politico at the time the hold-up had to do with concerns over triggering state and local tax liabilities by cancelling the loans. (Federal taxes would already be waived, by law.)
To be fair, the Education Department raised this issue itself, when last year it compared its records with those of the VA and sent letters to those disabled veterans believed to owe money on student loans. Those veterans had to act to take advantage of the program, however, the loans couldn’t be forgiven automatically.
To do that would require the intervention of Congress.
Under a plan by Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson, chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, the government will make comparing its notes a regular exercise, doing so twice each year to look for disabled vets who may be eligible for this benefit. His legislation, cosponsored by Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, also calls for the government to make a careful study of discrepancies in the data, lest someone fall through the cracks. Finally, and most importantly, the government would automatically forgive the loans of those who are eligible.
Isakson called the plan, which has a companion bill in the House of Representatives, a “commonsense way to make it easier for totally and permanently disabled veterans to receive the student loan relief they deserve, and I hope that we’re able to act quickly on it.” We hope so too. It should be an easy vote, no matter one’s party or political persuasion.