Student loan borrower chooses between debt payment and health insurance

  • Robin O’Brien, 61, has a student debt of $64,000 from his master’s degree.
  • She is having a long COVID, which has led her to work part-time to earn half her income.
  • Now she is forced to choose between paying for health insurance or paying off her student debt.

Even with an income-based repayment plan for his $64,000 student debt, Robin O’Brien can’t afford the payments.

After working in long-term care facilities for 25 years, O’Brien said the next step in her career was to become an administrator – but to be in this field while earning enough income, she needed master’s degree. When she took out federal loans to take online classes at two public universities, and after graduating in 2017, she could not have foreseen the pandemic and the financial strain it would bring.

Now she faces long COVID symptoms that have forced her to work part-time, and her medical bills and student debt are unmanageable.

“Right now, I’m picking out five of the envelopes with medical bills, and then I’ll pay them $20 each,” O’Brien said, referring to the stack of bills she receives each month. “And next month I’ll take five more and pay $20 each. I can’t really afford more than $100.”

O’Brien said her health insurance costs $525 a month, and paying for it, along with other basic necessities, with a part-time income of around $2,000 a month drives her to choose between getting a medical treatment or staying current on student loans. . Federal loan payments have been on pause since the pandemic began, and O’Brien has made no payments during that time. But she said she struggled with them before the break, and she doesn’t think she will be able to repay her debt when the break expires after August 31.

Based on the most recent reports, President Joe Biden is considering canceling $10,000 in student debt for federal borrowers earning less than $150,000 a year, and the Wall Street Journal reported that the announcement would likely not be not made before July or August. But the White House has not confirmed any plans, and it’s unclear whether graduate students or parents who have taken out loans for their children would be included.

“I don’t know how I’m going to afford it,” O’Brien said. “I don’t think it’s something I can afford.”

“I’m stuck making payments for the rest of my life”

Income-driven repayment plans aim to provide student borrowers with affordable monthly payments based on their income, with the promise of loan forgiveness after at least 20 years on the plan. But that’s far enough for O’Brien, and she wanted people like her to be considered for Biden’s broad relief offers.

“I’m stuck making payments for the rest of my life,” O’Brien said. “I worked really hard to get this degree, and I’m actually using it for the purpose I got it for, but I can’t make these payments on one paycheck.”

The idea of ​​excluding high earners and graduate students from aid is likely an attempt to avoid criticism from Republican lawmakers and pundits who have argued that broad student loan forgiveness would help the wealthy the most.

“If his goal is for low-income Americans to subsidize privileged college graduates and the upper class, President Biden will hit that mark if he continues this disastrous policy,” said Virginia Foxx, a top Republican on the House Education Committee.

But as we saw with O’Brien, having a graduate degree doesn’t necessarily mean earning a high income, and Democrats have maintained that student loan forgiveness will help low-income borrowers the most.

For example, a report last year from the left-leaning Roosevelt Institute found that 61% of students with incomes of $30,000 and under who started college in 2012 graduated with student debt, compared to 30% of students with an income of $200,000 or more who left school in debt.

The debate around who would get broad student loan relief persists, but O’Brien hopes she won’t be left out of that conversation.

“People in my situation deserve help,” O’Brien said. “I just don’t see myself being able to cover that student loan debt.”

Do you have a story to share on student debt? Contact Ayelet Sheffey at [email protected]

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