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Chairman delays bill to prevent debt collection from service members killed in action

Under current law, the VA is required to contact family of deceased to collect debt.

Efforts to "hotline" a Senate measure Thursday night to bar the Veterans Affairs Department from seeking to collect debts owed by soldiers killed in combat ran into objections from Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii,. The bill's sponsor, Military Construction-VA Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, won consent from Senate leaders to bring the bill to the floor for approval by unanimous consent, but Akaka objected to bypassing the committee because he and the department had questions about the measure, including how instances of debts incurred through fraud or bad faith are handled.

"Obviously, we're disappointed that the Senate missed an opportunity to pass this common sense, VFW-endorsed legislation, but Sen. Hutchison will keep working," spokesman Matt Mackowiak said Friday.

In a letter sent Thursday, Akaka asked VA Secretary James Peake to suspend debt collections from families of soldiers either killed in combat or on active duty in training since Sept. 11, 2001, while the committee examined the bill further. In a conference call Friday, Akaka added he plans to hold a hearing soon. "He's trying to understand it at this point," an Akaka aide said, adding that the hearing would likely occur May 7, followed by a June markup. Under current law, if a soldier who is killed in combat previously owed debts, the VA is required to contact the deceased's family to collect.

It can waive the requirement in certain cases at the secretary's discretion, but the department to date has sought about $56,000 from the families of 22 soldiers, three of whom are in Texas and petitioned Hutchison for aid. Most of the money is owed from college loans under the GI bill.

"This is vital to the livelihood and honor of our troops and their families," Veterans of Foreign Wars legislative director Dennis Cullinan wrote Hutchison Monday. "We as a people should not demand repayment of debts from a person that has given everything in the name of their country." When she introduced the bill last month, Hutchison called the VA's effort to collect the sums "ludicrous."

Meanwhile, on the anniversary of the disclosure of problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., Akaka and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., discussed a new effort to address shortfalls in the care of injured troops and veterans. The Wounded Warrior Assistance Act changed the disabilities ranking system that allowed some soldiers to go undiagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, which the senators considered one of the most prominent medical issues for soldiers returning from the Iraq War. In a new program, the VA will set standards for ranking the seriousness of injuries for treatment instead of the Defense Department.

"We have a moral obligation to do right by those who defend our country," Bayh said. "We far too often do not."