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Last September, President Donald Trump signed into law a bill allowing people with cancer to press pause on their federal student loan payments.
At issue seems to be this: The Department of Education has yet to provide the companies that administer its federal student loan programs with an official application for cancer patients to apply.
"It is outrageous that the U.S. Department of Education still hasn't made the cancer deferment form available nine months after the legislation was enacted," said Mark Kantrowitz, a student debt expert, who estimates that up to 1 million borrowers could be eligible.
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"These delays put cancer patients under additional stress, interfering with their treatment," Kantrowitz said.
Peter Mazza owes around $30,000 in student loans, and in April he was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer.
His wife, Megan, was the one who told him about the government's new cancer deferment, in which student loan borrowers are able to put their monthly loan bills on hold without interest accruing while they're in medical treatment and then for six months afterward.
"It was amazing to me that Congress and the president passed a law like this to bring some relief to people who clearly need all the help they can get, both health-wise and financially," Mazza, 41, said.
That is correct information, that the deferment application is not yet available. However, we would still like to contact us if this is something you may qualify for. We will flag your account, and send you the application as soon as it become available!— Nelnet (@Nelnet) June 17, 2019
Mazza, a lawyer for the Justice Department who lives in California, called his student loan servicer Nelnet in June to request that he get a break from his monthly $245 bill throughout his medical care.
After around 10 frustrating phone calls with the servicer — where he said he was often given inaccurate information about the deferment — Mazza was finally told by Nelnet that it couldn't offer him the cancer deferment until the Department of Education issues a form for him to fill out to prove his condition.
"It's such a tortured path," Mazza said. "And at the end, there's still no satisfaction."
Nelnet did not respond to a request for comment.
The Department of Education appears to be taking steps to create and issue an application for the deferment.
At the end of January, the agency asked the Office of Management and Budget to conduct an emergency review and approval of its cancer deferment form. However, the law had been on the books for four months by then.
The Department of Education also required a 60-day comment period on the form, a seemingly longer timeline than necessary, Kantrowitz said.
"The department could have required only a 30-day comment period, or even a 15-day comment period," Kantrowitz said.
Liz Hill, press secretary at the Department of Education, said the agency has established an interim process that allows borrowers to stop making payments on their loans as it works to implement the law passed by Congress. She also asked for borrowers running into issues to contact them at StudentAid.gov/feedback.
"The department is committed to supporting students who are undergoing cancer treatments and are struggling to repay their student loans," Hill said.
Throughout the last year, Peter Tanner has spent weeks in the hospital, had three abdominal surgeries and lost more than 70 pounds. He has stage 4 bowel cancer and $15,000 in student debt.
Tanner, an information technologist from Florida, was grateful to learn Congress was offering a reprieve for student loan borrowers with cancer. His medical expenses have already forced him to take out a home equity loan on his house and lean on his credit cards.
Tanner called Mohela, his student loan servicer, in February to request that his loans be put into the new deferment. He was put on hold multiple times, he said, and then delivered the bad news: "The bottom line they gave me was, 'We don't have an official application from the U.S. government,'" Tanner, 40, said. "'Until we get that, we can't enroll you in this program.'"
In the meantime, he said, he was told the servicer would put his loans into a temporary forbearance, during which his payments would be paused but interest would continue to collect on his debt.
"It sounds like Congress wanted to do a good thing – and I feel like I'm not even getting half of what they intended in the law," Tanner said.
A spokesperson for Mohela said that implementing a new deferment is complicated and that this timeline was not unusual. He said the form would be released soon and eligible borrowers would have any interest that accumulated on their loans waived.
Scott Buchanan, executive director of the Student Loan Servicing Alliance, a trade association that represents student loan servicers, said he expects a final form and guidance from the Department of Education "very shortly."
The delayed rollout of the deferment is due to the fact that the law was effective at time of enactment, Buchanan said.
"When Congress makes changes, historically they have provided a window of time for implementation," he said. "That was not the case with the cancer deferment, which poses real challenges."
Yet there was likely a reason the provision didn't come with a lag time, Kantrowitz said, "Cancer patients can't wait."
Julie Roberts, a pediatric speech language pathologist from Ohio, owes more than $80,000 in student loans and has stage 4 breast cancer. In January 2018, she called her servicer, American Education Services, to request that her loans be placed into the cancer deferment.
Roberts spoke to multiple people at AES but none of them seemed to understand the new option. She was told the bill had not yet passed and that she didn't qualify for it — both of which are not true.
CNBC asked Keith New, the director of media relations at AES, why Roberts was being denied the deferment. New identified her account and said there had been a communications error. "She is eligible for the new cancer treatment deferment," New wrote in an email.
Since AES doesn't yet have an official application from the U.S. Department of Education, it put Roberts' loans into a temporary forbearance and New said it will eventually cancel any interest that accrued once it has that form.
Still, Roberts said it's anxiety producing to watch her debt rack up interest while she undergoes surgeries and radiation treatments.
"I paid the loans for years and now I owe well over what they were to begin with," Roberts said. "It's creating horrible stress when I'm already under stress from this diagnosis."
Have you had trouble trying to access the cancer deferment for student loan borrowers? Please email me: email@example.com