​Total and Permanent Disability Program Reform Explained

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on September 27, 2021 # Advocacy and Policy

Capital buildingThis month, September 2021, more than 300,000 student loan borrowers with disabilities will begin to have their loans discharged by the Department of Education (DOE), thanks to new regulations announced by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona in August. The decision will eliminate upwards of $5.8 billion dollars in debt and implement key reforms to the total and permanent disability discharge program (TPD), reforms that the Reeve Foundation and other organizations have been advocating to change, that will make it easier for eligible borrowers to enroll in this program and stay enrolled.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 created the TPD discharge program, which allows student loan borrowers with a total or permanent disability, preventing them from engaging “in any substantial gainful activity” to have their federal loans forgiven. However, the program has not been achieving its goals or reaching its target community.

While the Department of Education has had a regular data matching and enrollment agreement with the Department of Veterans Affairs, all other qualifying borrowers were responsible for proactively submitting an application and collecting supporting documents, like a physician’s letter, to prove their disability. This has proven overly burdensome and created a needless barrier between the program and the people it is meant to serve.

Additionally, a three-year financial monitoring requirement added more bureaucracy, and led to the cancelation of discharge benefits for eligible borrowers due to filing delays. These bureaucratic rabbit holes meant that roughly 200,000 people, otherwise eligible for loan discharge, would pay almost $6 billion in a 12-month period, according to a Social Security Administration Inspector General report.

In April, the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation joined 16 other disability rights groups in a letter to Secretary Cardona and Social Security Administrator Andrew Saul, requesting the Department of Education reform these unnecessary provisions that have made it difficult for those who need the program most to gain access. We asked the Department of Education to match data with the Social Security Administration, as they do with the Department of Veterans Affairs, to automatically enroll eligible borrowers into TPD, as well as eliminate the 3-year financial monitoring requirement all together.

We are so pleased to report that is exactly what the Department intends to do.

“This new regulation allows the Department to provide automatic TPD discharges for borrowers who are identified through administrative data matching by removing the requirement for these borrowers to fill out an application before receiving relief,” the Department of Education said in a statement.

This does not mean that the Department is eliminating the TPD discharge application all together. Individuals who are not receiving benefits from the Veterans Affairs or Social Security, and may not be identified for automatic enrollment, are still able to apply using a physician’s letter. Anyone with questions one what option applies to them should contact the Department of Education.

The Department of Education and the Social Security Administration conduct quarterly data matches. The next one is scheduled for September 2021. Individuals who match the data set will be automatically enrolled into the TPD program.

“Borrowers will receive notices of their approval for a discharge in the weeks after the match, and the Department expects that all discharges will occur by the end of the year."

The Education Department is encouraging borrowers to check with state tax offices on whether the discharge will be counted as income.

Previously, those who qualified for the program from data matching or through a physician’s letter, would need to submit proof of their income, or risk losing their discharge. A 2016 GAO study found that 98% of borrowers who lost their discharge through the monitoring period did so because of missed filing deadlines, not because they acceded to the income threshold.

The Education Department will indefinitely stop sending automatic requests for earnings information, and they will propose eliminating the monitoring period entirely in the upcoming negotiated rulemaking that will begin in October. Removing this layer of bureaucracy will help ensure those who need access to the program most are not denied life changing benefits because of late paperwork.

The Reeve Foundation will continue to work with their coalition partners to ensure these changes are implemented. We will also continue to update you on new developments, like October’s negotiated rulemaking, and ask our advocates to weigh in where they can. Follow this link to Become an advocate and lend your voice to these crucial policy discussions today.

Please visit the Department of Education’s webpage on Total and Permanent Discharge for more information.

The National Paralysis Resource Center website is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL), U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of a financial assistance award totaling $8,700,000 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.