Groups push for easier student loan relief for the disabled

Advocates for the disabled are pressing the Biden administration to cancel student debt for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have disabilities that make them eligible for federal debt forgiveness but who have not applied for the benefit.

Using a rarely pursued federal petition process, three federal advocacy groups on Monday asked the U.S. Education Department to consider erasing debt for nearly 400,000 people with severe disabilities and to overhaul a debt forgiveness program that critics say is overly burdensome.

The petition argues that huge swaths of eligible Americans are missing out on debt relief through the program because of its bureaucratic barriers, including a “byzantine application that includes false, misleading and legally incorrect information.”

It was filed by the National Student Legal Defense Network, Community Legal Aid Society of Delaware and Justice in Aging, and it was backed by U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del.

The petition takes aim at a federal program that offers debt cancellation to people with “total and permanent” disabilities. It’s meant to help people with physical or mental disabilities that leave them unable to work. Applicants must provide proof of their disability and undergo a three-year monitoring period to ensure their incomes remain below certain levels.

But many who are eligible for the relief don’t get it. Last year, the Social Security Administration identified nearly 600,000 people who qualified for the program, but more than half had not applied.

Many people don’t know they’re eligible, advocates say, and many are deterred by the program’s requirements. A federal study in 2016 found that the monitoring period creates major obstacles for applicants. It found that, among more than 60,000 people who had recently been disqualified during their monitoring period, 98% were booted for filing the wrong paperwork — not because their incomes were too high.

Advocacy groups and some in Congress have been calling for an overhaul of the program for years. The Biden administration last month paused some of the program’s requirements during the pandemic and said it will consider permanent changes.

In a statement, Coons called the petition a “critical step” to getting Americans with disabilities their entitled relief.

“I urge the Department of Education to answer the persistent calls of borrowers, advocates and bipartisan members of Congress to automate the loan discharge process,” Coons said.

The petition asks the Education Department to eliminate the application process and automatically cancel debt for people who have been identified as eligible by the Social Security Administration. The measure would erase an estimated $14 billion in existing student debt.

The groups are also asking for an end to the monitoring period, which they called an “unnecessary administrative nightmare.”

In 2019, the Trump administration started issuing automatic loan discharges to military veterans who become eligible for the relief. But all others must apply, even those deemed permanently disabled by the Social Security Administration.

U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in March put a pause on the monitoring period’s reporting requirements until at least Sept. 30. He also moved to erase debt for 40,000 people who had been granted relief only to see it restored over paperwork issues.

The petition urged Cardona to revamp the program before the temporary reprieve is lifted.

It was filed through a provision of the Administrative Procedure Act, which allows anyone to file a petition to issue, amend or repeal a federal rule. Federal agencies are required to consider and respond to such petitions “within a reasonable time.”