New COVID-19 Relief Bill Includes Debt Reprieve, Health Coverage for Veterans

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World War II veterans about to take part in the Veterans Day parade.
World War II veterans about to take part in the Veterans Day parade in Panama City, Florida, November 11, 2015. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Fred Gray IV)

Another massive pandemic relief package introduced Tuesday in the House of Representatives contains several provisions for veterans, including protections for those who owe money to the Department of Veterans Affairs and health care for any vet who has lost insurance coverage during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES, bill unveiled by House Democrats is the fifth in a series of bills aimed at sustaining the country through the novel coronavirus crisis.

Contained in its 1,800 pages are provisions to support state and local governments, help farmers, protect renters and homeowners from evictions and foreclosures, forgive student debt, increase funds for Medicaid and Medicare and provide hazard pay for health care workers.

The bill also contains several measures to support veterans, including a temporary suspension of VA debt collection activities until 60 days following a declaration of the end of the national emergency and health care for any veteran who lost health insurance during the pandemic, including the unemployed and those who have lost their employee-provided health care.

It also would extend deadlines for filing claims and appeals for VA benefits until 90 days after the national emergency ends.

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In early April, the VA announced several measures to help veterans in debt and those who have filed disability claims with the department. It temporarily halted collections for veterans with new VA health care or benefits bills and allowed veterans already in debt to the VA to ask for a suspension of debt or request an extended payment plan by calling the department.

The VA also said it will not refer debts to credit agencies during the pandemic and will continue to process VA home loan applications for veterans who have unresolved debt payment issues.

During the pandemic, veterans also are allowed to submit late claims and appeals to the Veterans Benefits Administration, alongside requests for extensions on the submissions. The department also agreed to expedite appeals for veterans diagnosed with COVID-19.

The measures are set to end as soon as President Donald Trump declares that the national emergency is suspended or over.

The $3.3 trillion proposal also includes another $1,200 stimulus for Americans who make less than $75,000 a year and $1,200 each for up to three dependents.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, said the new HEROES legislation is needed to ensure that veterans "have an opportunity to succeed."

"As veteran unemployment skyrockets to 12 percent and VA steps up to serve both our nation's veterans and civilians through its Fourth Mission, it is clear that the COVID-19 pandemic requires immediate, bold action," Takano said in a release Tuesday, referring to the VA's obligation to serve as a backstop, providing beds and health services to civilians as needed during a public health crisis.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has suggested that an additional massive aid package is not something he wants to rush, given that the U.S. now has "a debt the size of our economy."

"We have to take a pause here and take a look at what we've done," McConnell said.

Other measures pertaining to veterans in the bill include:

  • An expansion of access to mental health services at VA Vet Centers for activated National Guard and Reserve members, as well as veterans supporting COVID-19 response;
  • No copays or cost-sharing for veterans seeking treatment for COVID-19;
  • An increase in Aid and Attendance pay for those already receiving it by 25% throughout the crisis, as well as coverage for personal protective equipment supplies.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-California, has said she wants a vote on the proposal Friday.

Veterans who need assistance with benefits debts can call the VA Debt Management Center at 1-800-827-0648.

Those with health care debts can contact the VA Health Resource Center at 1-888-827-4817.

Veterans with claims extension questions can call 1-800-827-1000.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the state that Sen. McConnell represents.

-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Monster.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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