WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs (SVAC) passed the Stopping Harm and Implementing Enhanced Lead-time (SHIELD) for Veterans Act of 2020, bipartisan legislation that creates new protections for veterans when they receive an overpayment from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), resulting in veteran or VA beneficiary debt. The bill directs VA to improve its debt management practices, systems, and processes. Brown was able to secure language in the bill that prevents VA collecting on debt that is being disputed by veterans, and he worked to improve the overpayment notice and debt dispute processes giving veterans and their families more information and transparency. Last month, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs reported out a similar bill and Brown will work with his SVAC colleagues to fight for his provisions going forward.
“Our veterans sacrifice so much already to serve our country. Now more than ever, we need to make sure that they aren’t paying for the delays of the Department 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.
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.
VA provides monthly payments to veterans and other beneficiaries under a number of VA programs and, for a variety of reasons, including delays in processing dependency changes and communication errors between IT systems, VA sometimes makes overpayments to veterans. Because these payments are automatic and monthly, these overpayments can add up significantly over time, and they are quite often not the fault of the veteran. VA makes efforts to recover these overpayments from veterans, and often does so by withholding amounts from their monthly benefit checks until the full amount is recouped. Because there is no limit on how much VA can ask a veteran to repay, and no limit on how far back it can go to collect the debt, these sums can become enormous. Many times, VA withholds entire checks from veterans who may be living on fixed incomes. These VA withholdings/debts create financial and emotional stresses on veterans and their families. They can also harm a veteran’s credit score because VA often reports the existence of this debt to credit reporting agencies.
Last year, 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.