05 December 2008

...some splaining to do {re: student loan discharge}

Several folks have asked about the process for student loan discharge in general, and in particular about my struggles with getting forgiveness. So I thought I'd include here what I've already written in eMail for one friend. If you find highly detailed battles boring, then skip this entry and read the next post {I'll make it entertaining, promise}:

Well, it took lots of perseverance, lots of support from the right folks (doctors, mental health care providers, general health care providers, ombudsman officers, and friends and family on the personal front), and a very good understanding of the rules, regulations, and policy and procedure. I knew that I qualified for forgiveness of my student loans because I met all the criteria. My disability onset was after I took out the last of my loans, I have not taken any more loans, I have not attended school or worked since then, and was able to document all conditions. "Simply" receiving disability thru Social Security is not enough for Sallie Mae, American Education Services, and the US Dept of Edu. You must also be placed on conditional status for three years post disability date {as accepted by the lenders, not your doctors, not Social Security Administration, nor any other agency or organization}.

It is a multi-staged process, so the first step was for me to contact the holders of my loans. I had consolidated all my loans, and Sallie Mae had bought them. Once I completed the form for application, I also contacted my doctor {who was and is the absolute bestest evah!}, because a medical doctor's signature and DEA info, license info, etc is required from the get-go. As my date of disability for ALL intents and purposes was very clear and not under debate, 8 April 2003; I had actually waited til the end of what would have been my three year conditional period to even start the discharge process. So, I applied for discharge in May 2006. Sallie Mae granted my discharge within a month, no further information was requested or needed for their purposes.

The next step then for me was American Educational Services {AES}, who discharged my loans the following month. Til that point, I'd never even heard of AES, but apparently, they are the mediators between the government agency (because student loans are regulated by the federal Department of Education's Student Loan and the lenders (in this case, Sallie Mae). After AES discharged my loans, the last agency is next. By law, the Dept of Edu has up to 120 days to begin processing my application once it is discharged from AES. So, in the beginning of December 2006, I called and tracked down my case and discovered that it hadn't yet made it from one office to another. No one was claiming responsibility, so it took awhile to find what was where.

Starting in January 2007, I began to call the relevant office and keep very good records of whom I spoke with, who said what, and how what was said conflicted with what someone else said. I would speak with supervisor's supervisor's superior's boss's etc. carefully recording everyone's names, dates, times, numbers, etc. I lost my temper lots. I received plenty of verbal abuse. And in the meantime, I had many collection agencies pressuring me for collection on my student loans. It was very nerve wrecking.

For months, I felt as tho I was going round and round and round and round and OH! round again. Eventually, my counselor and my doctor and I conference called the Conditional Disability Discharge Unit {CDDU} and went thru another few months of faxing the same forms with the info that they requested and them saying they never got it and so on and so forth. Finally, in October 2007, I wrote and sent letters and eMails to every single one of our Mississippi legislatures on both State and Federal level. My primary concern was that altho this was a Federal matter, perhaps raising a ruckus on state level would be effective, after all, someone would know someone, who knew someone, and that someone might serve on a congressional subcommittee focused on this very matter.

The way I dealt with all this in the letter to them was that I stress that I am a constituent dealing with issues that were squarely within the realm of mental health concerns. That the longer that I dealt with this battle, the more it affects my mental health, the more it affects my disability, and so on. I also pointed out that the forms that the CDDU used ONLY dealt with physical limitations, and did not deal with any thing from a pyschological stand point. In addition, they would only accept information from my medical doctor, and not my counselors, therapists, psychologists, and other mental health care providers. I also pointed out that I was using state and federal resources (my allotment of medicaid and medicare visits) in pursuit of completing this process which was not progressing as according to the Dept of Edu's own stated policy.

At the same time that I sent out these letters, I also applied for assistance from the Office of the Ombudsman of the Dept of Education. Within a few days, I had several inquiries from Representative Steve Holland (whose office contacted MSU's financial aid office's director and the Ombudsman's officer), and a few other
Mississippi legislators, and the Ombudsman Officer who took my case also contacted me. That was in October 2007.

In February 2008, my counselor became more proactive as an advocate and took over all my contact with the Ombudsman officer (who had already taken over my contact with the CDDU). In June 2008, my counselor, my general practitioner, and I again held a conference and based on some suggestions made by the Ombudsman Officer, we made sure all forms and letters were updated with all relevant information, including my medications, my limitations, my diagnoses, etc.

My counselor then went on maternity leave in August, but she and I remained in contact via eMail and phone. Also, the Ombudsman Officer remained in contact with my counselor and eventually, they unraveled a few things, and some changes had been made: most notably, the forms that the Dept of Edu and CDDU are using now include information pertaining to psychological conditions and not only physical limitations. Eventually, my case again went under review by the medical board {dept of edu, cddu, ombudsman office}. Since my general practitioners and mental health care providers maintained consistent support the entire time, providing whatever documents where considered necessary countless times, etc; there never was any doubt about my conditions. Our stories never changed, there were no conflicts, no changes, no inconsistencies.

So, yesterday, the Ombudsman Officer contacted my counselor and asked for a return call. My counselor was worried because I've had a very rough week and she didn't think I could take another piece of bad news. After such a long frustrating battle, what other kind of news could it be? But, today, the ombudsman's officer asked my counselor, "how would you like to give Debra the very best Christmas present ever?"

So there are a few steps that will occur now before the entire thing is finalized. The next step is that they need to verify that I have not had any income over the last three years other than my benefits {Social Security}. So there will be a form coming for my signature, verifying my social security number and allowing them to access my records. Then, I will receive another form, telling me that my forgiveness has been granted and that all my loans have been discharged.

As you can see, it was a very difficult process that I managed to navigate with the steadfast support and advocation of some key people. I would not have been able to do this on my own. I have been able to keep up with all the policy, all the changes, all the information, only because I have been a self-advocate for a long time and have successfully navigated the Social Security Administration's disability determination.

If I've overwhelmed you with information, you are more than welcome to ask for clarification. I know that it can be a very confusing process from the outset and if one misstep occurs, it can invalidate the entire situation. There are limitations, of course. One condition is that from this point forth, I will not be able to easily obtain student loans. If I do, I will not be able to have them discharged for any reason, including a significant worsening of my conditions.

Most folks do not qualify, as they take their student loans out while their condition is pre-existing. It is relatively unheard of anyone receiving forgiveness in the matters of student loans. Even if you declare bankruptcy, your student loans are exempt and you are still held accountable for the repayment of them. Less than five percent of those who apply for discharge receive forgiveness.

Again thanks to everybody for the encouraging support!

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