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Sen. Tom Harkin & Aaron Ament Publish Op-Ed in Des Moines Register on Debt Relief for Borrowers with Disabilities

This op-ed appeared in the Des Moines Register on January 3, 2020. The original op-ed is available here.


Biden Can Help Disabled Student Borrowers on Day One

By Sen. Tom Harkin and Aaron Ament

America may be relieved to have turned the page on 2020, but 2021 may bring the unwelcome return of the monthly student loan bill for millions of people across the country. For student loan borrowers, who collectively owe more than $1.6 trillion to the federal government, the temporary reprieve from making student loan payments during the pandemic has been a vital lifeline. But for those borrowers with disabilities who will be unable to return to work even after the COVID-19 crisis, the resumption of monthly payments could be devastating.

In the first days of his new administration, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona can transform hundreds of thousands of disabled borrowers’ lives--and provide a substantial economic stimulus--by simply fixing a debt relief program that already exists.

Under federal law, student borrowers who are unable to work because they are “totally and permanently disabled” are eligible for a complete discharge of their federal student loans, and the Department of Education has already identified hundreds of thousands of qualifying borrowers by analyzing data shared by the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Social Security Administration. Despite this hard work, however, less than 40 percent of the identified borrowers have received the relief they are entitled to. At least 400,000 eligible borrowers are stuck making payments on loans the Department knows they do not owe.

Shamefully, in some cases the Department has even sent these borrowers into the collection process and seized disability benefits to collect on these debts - a stark betrayal of some of the most vulnerable among us.

The nonprofit group Student Defense published an analysis in December laying out a roadmap for the next administration to automate the discharge process.

Administrative law is full of pitfalls for the unwary, but there’s no question automating this relief would be legal. The Trump Administration announced - with great fanfare - a nearly identical automatic discharge for about 25,000 disabled veterans in 2019, but refused to do the same for the rest of the eligible borrowers who happened not to have served in the armed forces.

And there’s no question that it’s the right thing to do. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are suffering hardships and privations that are difficult to imagine, and the system is failing them. What good is relief if it doesn’t reach those it is supposed to help? That is why more than thirty disability rights advocates and consumer organizations, along with nine states, pushed for these changes under President Trump.

The only question is whether the next Secretary of Education will fix this problem, and get these borrowers the relief they need.

Tom Harkin of Cumming was a U.S. senator from 1985 to 2015. Aaron Ament is president of Student Defense and was chief of staff in the Department of Education's Office of General Counsel during the Obama administration.