President Donald Trump said he will direct the Department of Veterans Affairs to postpone all debt collections and extend deadlines for benefits applications where possible in an effort to lessen the financial impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic on veterans and their families.
The pledge came at his daily press conference Thursday about the ongoing federal response to the fast-spreading illness, which has already infected at least 240,000 Americans and killed more than 6,000 others.
“We’re making every effort to provide relief to our great veterans,” Trump said. “We take very good care of our veterans.”
Trump said he has instructed VA Secretary Robert Wilkie to use “any authority at his disposal” to deal with the benefits and collections issues. VA officials did not provide any immediate comment on the White House decision.
Numerous lawmakers have been pushing for the move for days, calling it a necessary step to protect already anxious and suffering veterans. On Tuesday, Senate Veteran’s Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., petitioned Wilkie to grant waivers for a host of benefits filing deadlines.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs has broad authority to waive many required deadlines under the law and we believe the current crisis warrants liberal provision of such waivers,” the pair wrote in a letter to the secretary.
Under current VA rules, veterans or veterans service organizations typically face tight deadlines for disability benefits applications to protest decisions or appeal rulings.
Tester and Moran have pushed for a suspension of all such deadlines for 180 days, and for all new benefits filings to have an effective date of March 31, 2020, so veterans aren’t penalized for unforeseen delays in processing appropriate forms.
“We hope we can continue working together ensuring veterans are not faced with an unfair choice: risking their health or receiving their benefits,” they wrote.
On Thursday night, veterans advocates offered cautious praise for Trump’s announcement.
“We must lighten the financial burden of veterans by suspending VA debt collections in the same way (the government) did for U.S. Treasury and U.S. Department of Education (debts),” officials from Veterans Education Success wrote in a Twitter post.
“While we’re hopeful, there are many outstanding questions. What does this exactly mean? When and how will this be implemented? How will veterans be notified?”
Trump said the veterans announcement was part of a broad array of moves to protect “Americans who remain the most vulnerable” amid economic and medical uncertainty.
According to VA data, 68 veterans in department health care have died from coronavirus-related complications in the last month.