Taking a step that undoubtedly presages further coordinated action, state officials holding the title of Student Loan Ombudsman or comparable titles sent a joint letter to Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul urging the ED and SSA to establish an automatic process for discharging federal student loans of disabled civilian borrowers.

The officials assert in their letter that although the ED Secretary has authority to develop standards for these borrowers to be eligible for discharge, the law “is clear” that a borrower’s loans shall be discharged if he or she meets one the following conditions:

  • Is permanently and totally disabled
  • Is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to result in death, has lasted for a continuous period of not less than 60 months, or can be expected to last for a continuous period of less than 60 months

According to the officials, the current discharge application process “does not work for the population it is intended to help” for reasons that include difficulties a borrower may face as a result of his or her disabilities in collecting information and completing the documents necessary to demonstrate eligibility for a discharge.  They claim such difficulties often also interfere with the three-year post-discharge monitoring period during which borrowers must submit documentation annually to confirm their status or risk having their discharged loans reinstated.  The officials observe that the ED accepts Social Security Disability Insurance or Social Security Income as proof of eligibility for a discharge.  They urge the ED to work with the SSA “to implement a system that will allow the Secretary to accept information shared by the SSA that a borrower is permanently disabled for the purpose of granting the discharge, and to take any steps within the Department’s and SSA’s authority to minimize or eliminate the need for borrowers to proactively participate in the post-discharge monitoring process.”

The officials reference the ED’s decision to grant automatic discharges to disabled veterans as an example of how it can provide relief to disabled civilian borrowers. They assert that automatic relief for disabled borrowers “has bipartisan support in Congress and the support of disability advocacy groups as well.”