The federal agency that oversees Social Security announced this month that it will review how it handles “overpayments” — money it sends to beneficiaries that it later determines they were not entitled to receive.
The Social Security Administration made the announcement weeks after KFF Health News and Cox Media Group reported that the agency had been trying to recover billions of dollars of beneficiaries, including many poor, retired or disabled people who have spent the money and cannot pay it back.
“Despite our high accuracy rates, I am forming a team to review our overpayment policies and procedures to further improve how we serve our customers,” Kilolo Kijakazi, acting commissioner of Social Security, said in a statement. press.
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Kijakazi said she had chosen a “senior official” to lead the team and report directly to her.
During fiscal year 2022, the agency recovered $4.7 billion in overpayments, according to a report by the SSA inspector general.
By the time the agency detects an error and notifies the beneficiary that they have been overpaid, years may have passed and the amount involved may reach tens of thousands of dollars or more.
Following the KFF Health News/CMG investigation, some members of the House and Senate called on the Social Security Administration Be accountable and change your approach.
“The government has to fix this,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who chairs a Senate panel that oversees Social Security, said in a recent interview. “It’s a management issue, and the people there should be held accountable,” Brown added.
In a tweet, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., a member of the Committee on Aging, said he was “glad to see quick action being taken.”
The investigative report showed that overpayments can be caused by the government making a mistake or recipients not meeting requirements, intentionally or unintentionally.
One important factor: To qualify for certain benefits, people are limited in how much they can save, and the limits have not been updated for inflation in decades.
For people in one of the Social Security programs, the asset limit is now $2,000.
Problems can also be attributed to rules that are difficult for recipients and federal workers to follow; manual processes in the agency that are susceptible to human error; and staffing shortages that make it difficult for beneficiaries to communicate with SSA employees and for employees to keep up with the workload.
According to the Social Security Administration itself, many overpayments are the result of errors or omissions on the part of the agency.
Social Security pays $1.4 trillion in benefits to more than 71 million people annually, and about 0.5% of payments are overpayments, the agency said.
The overpayment rate is much higher in the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides money to people with little or no income or other resources who have disabilities, are blind or are at least 65 years old. In that program, overpayments represent about 8% of payments. , the SSA press release said.
The agency attributed the 8% overpayment rate to the complexity of the SSI program.
“When overpayments occur, the agency is required by law to adjust benefits or recover debts,” the news release said.
If a beneficiary “disagrees that they have been overpaid or believes the amount is incorrect, they may appeal,” the news release states. “If they believe they should not have to pay the money back, they can request that the agency waive collection of the overpayment.”
The agency said it had just released a “simplified waiver request form that is easier to understand and less onerous.”
Some beneficiaries have told KFF Health News and CMG that trying to contact the agency, much less resolve an alleged overpayment, can be infuriating. In the meantime, the government can suspend or reduce your monthly benefit checks.
Some people struggling to survive on monthly benefits say that even arrangements that allow them to pay the government gradually can leave them unable to cover rent or buy food.
The Social Security Administration faces competing pressures. It is required to pay people the benefits to which they are legally entitled and not misappropriate taxpayer funds. Trying to recoup overpayments from vulnerable beneficiaries runs counter to the goals of safety net programs, lawmakers and disability advocates, among others, have argued.
KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of the core operating programs of KFF, an independent source of research, polling and health policy journalism. Learn more about KFF.
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