MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today, the U.S. Education Department announced it is erasing student loan debt for more than 300,000 people with disabilities. This is happening through a decades-old federal program that called for those loans to be discharged if recipients became, quote, "totally and permanently disabled." But as NPR has reported for nearly two years, only a fraction of eligible borrowers have been able to take advantage of this program. Clare Lombardo of NPR's education team reports.
CLARE LOMBARDO, BYLINE: For years, eligible borrowers have learned about this discharge program in their doctor's offices or from their lawyers. Drew Lehman was severely injured in a car accident, and he told NPR in 2019 that he learned about it on the phone with a call center employee at the company that manages his student loans.
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DREW LEHMAN: People don't even know about this. They don't find out about it. Nobody tells you about it.
LOMBARDO: That was a big problem because in the past, student loan borrowers had to apply before they got this relief.
PERSIS YU: And for a lot of folks, in fact, their disabilities are getting in the way of filling out the paperwork needed to get cancellation under the disability discharge program.
LOMBARDO: That's Persis Yu, an attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. Today, the Education Department announced that it will automatically erase the student loans of borrowers who are identified as eligible. More than 323,000 people are expected to have their debts wiped away by the end of the year, for a total of about $5.8 billion.
YU: I think this is a huge deal for the hundreds of thousands of borrowers who are entitled to this relief. And, frankly, it's a very long overdue relief.
LOMBARDO: The department also said it's going to propose to do away with another bureaucratic hurdle, an income-monitoring period that has long tripped up borrowers who are already approved for debt relief. Borrowers and advocates also hope the department will re-examine who exactly qualifies to have their debts wiped away. There are lots of borrowers with disabilities who should qualify, they say, but aren't being identified in the department's data. Clare Lombardo, NPR News.
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