Pingree Testifies at Hearing on Her Legislation to Assist Veterans with VA Debt
WASHINGTON, D.C.—Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME) testified today at a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Disability Assistance and Memorial Affairs in support of H.R. 3705, the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act. The legislation she’s introduced assists veterans who find themselves with debts to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
“We’ve seen single mom veterans who can’t get a home loan and newly transitioned service members who struggle to re-integrate with garnished pay, recouped tax returns and reduced disability payments, all because of assigned debts they knew nothing about because something got ‘lost in the mail,’” Pingree told the committee in her testimony. “H.R. 3705, the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act, proposes a straightforward solution. It requires the VA to modify its regulations so that debt notifications are sent by certified mail. Thus, the VA would know that the veteran has actually received the letter.”
Full text of her testimony is below.
Several national veteran service organizations submitted testimony to the committee in support of the bill, including the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
During her time in Congress, Congresswoman Pingree has been contacted by many veteran constituents who’ve been surprised to find out that they owe the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) money for overpayment of benefits.
Often, these veterans only learn about the debt when their benefits are withheld. Having never received a prior notification, they miss deadlines for appealing the debt, setting up a payment plan, or applying for a waiver. The shock of learning that they owe money when they can no longer do anything to address it adds undue stress to veterans who may be dealing with service-connected disabilities and challenges, such as homelessness.
Even when some veterans have sent a timely response, the VA has said they did not receive it. One reason is that the VA does not send notifications via certified mail, meaning that it can’t confirm whether they have a veteran’s correct address and a veteran can’t be sure of whether their response was received.
Pingree’s bill, H.R. 3705, the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act, would do two things to remedy the situation—requiring the VA to 1) used certified mail for these kinds of notifications and 2) use plain language so veterans can clearly understand their rights in these situations.
Pingree’s Testimony Text
Chairman Bost, Ranking Member Esty, thank you for the opportunity to testify on the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act. I believe this bill offers a common sense fix to frustrations that some veterans in my district have shared with me, which I know veterans across the country have also experienced.
My district office has been contacted by veterans who are shocked and surprised to learn that they owe money to the VA -- for overpayment of benefits or some other reason -- months or even years after the debts were incurred. By the time they inquire, they are told by the VA: tough luck, the clock has run out. You’ve lost the ability to dispute, seek forgiveness, or create a payment plan for the alleged debt.
We’ve seen single mom veterans who can’t get a home loan and newly transitioned service members who struggle to re-integrate with garnished pay, recouped tax returns and reduced disability payments, all because of assigned debts they knew nothing about because something got “lost in the mail.”
Current VA regulations provide that such debtors are notified by “ordinary mail,” which is deemed to provide a “sufficient” notification to a veteran of an outstanding debt and what his or her rights of redress are. The problem is that people move and mail can get lost. This is a particular challenge for homeless vets or those without fixed address. At times the error is on the VA side. Our caseworkers have uncovered instances where the VA sent mailings to addresses in states where the veteran has never lived.
H.R. 3705, the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act, proposes a straightforward solution. It requires the VA to modify its regulations so that debt notifications are sent by certified mail. Thus, the VA would know that the veteran has actually received the letter. Likewise, it directs the VA to request that veterans seeking waivers use certified mail, so a veteran knows that the VA has received his or her response. We have heard from veterans who have submitted waivers, tried to create payment plans or tried to dispute the charges within the allotted time period, only to be told by the VA that the office never received their materials.
Lastly, the bill requires the VA to use plain language in how it communicates to a veteran about his or her debts and the rights to challenge it or seek accomodations. A veteran shouldn’t have to rely on a Congressional caseworker to interpret the VA’s bureaucrat-ese.
I urge the Committee to approve the Veterans Fair Debt Notice Act to promote accountability, consumer protection, efficiencies in the VA system, and fairness to our veterans who deserve peace of mind.
Finally, I appreciate the support of this legislation from veterans service organizations, who can attest to the frustrations that their members have experienced.