WASHINGTON, D.C. –Today, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs considered U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-OH) bipartisan Veterans Debt Fairness Act, which would prevent VA from charging veterans for its own accounting mistakes. Brown spoke about his bill and questioned expert witnesses from U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) about the importance of the legislation.
“Our veterans sacrifice so much already to serve our country. They shouldn’t be paying for the mistakes of the agency that’s supposed to serve them,” said Brown.
Annually, VA sends as many as 200,000 overpayment notices totaling thousands of dollars to veterans and their families, sending them into crippling debt and withholding future benefits payments until the debt is paid. These overpayments are often a result of VA’s own accounting errors, but VA puts veterans and their families on the hook for repaying the debt.
In March, Brown introduced the Veterans Debt Fairness Act to reduce these overpayment errors and require VA to hold itself, and not veterans, accountable for its mistakes. The bill requires VA to shoulder the debt burden of overpayments if VA was responsible for the debt.
Brown submitted statements for the record from Ohio veterans who have struggled with VA overpayments in the past, including John Moser from Bolivar and James Powers from Massillon. Brown’s bill to institute commonsense measures to protect veterans from VA overpayment mistakes is one of several steps taken by Brown’s office following a meeting with Powers at Brown’s weekly constituent coffee in Washington.
“Never did I expect that elements of my field hearing on a November day in Columbus, Ohio would find their way into purposeful legislation to prevent unnecessary hardship for Veterans. S. 805 puts measures into place to prevent financial hardship on Veterans that incur from an overpayment of benefits. The current policies in place provide little protection for the Veteran,” said Powers.
“My interest in this bill stems from 10 years of over payments by the VA totaling some $26,000. These over payments were the result of negligence by the VA regarding adjusting compensation due to concurrent receipt of Air Force Reserve Drill Pay and VA Compensation. The VA is in dire need of reform. I truly believe this bill is an excellent start,” said Bolivar.
VA benefit overpayment notices have been steadily increasing, sometimes for a payment period dating back as far as five years. Many of these debt overpayments are at no fault of the veteran or their dependents, but rather VA accounting errors and record mismanagement. Currently, VA can send out debt repayment notices to veterans requesting the full amount due within 30 days while freezing all benefit payments until the debt is repaid.
The Veterans Debt Fairness Act requires VA to update its computer systems so veterans can update their own information regarding their beneficiaries, eliminating a key cause of overpayments. Under their bill, VA would be required to offer electronic notification of debt notices, including information on how to file appeals and hardship waivers. Debt collection would have to adhere to a 5-year backlog time limit and no more than 25% withholding of benefit payments.
Senators Brown, Jon Tester (D-MT) and John Boozman (R-AR) introduced similar legislation last year. Provisions of that bill were signed into law as a part of the Veterans Benefits and Transition Act, forcing VA to allow veterans to make changes to their personal information themselves. The backlog of these information requests were a main contributor to VA overpayments.
Cosponsors of the Veterans Debt Fairness Act include Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.).