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Social Security overpayments

Updated: Nov 15, 2023

‘Like a punch in the face’: Oregon man now owes $99K in Social Security overpayments

By Jesse Jones, KIRO 7 News September 28, 2023 at 5:30 pm PDTNOW PLAYING ABOVE

Justice is Lost
Justice is Lost

A KIRO 7 Investigation is gaining traction in the nation’s capital with lawmakers demanding answers from the Social Security Administration and calls for congressional hearings.

This all comes in the wake of our reporting on billions of dollars in overpayments to vulnerable Americans who are now being asked to pay it back.


Consumer investigator Jesse Jones has also been getting calls and emails from viewers, including one from an Oregon resident.


“It’s like a huge punch in the face,” says Glen, who doesn’t want to use his last name but is one of the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people the agency says was overpaid benefits.


More than $ 21 billion dollars are still uncollected, and that’s even after the Social Security Administration has been clawing back cash at the rate of $4-6 billion dollars a year. Glen says how the government is doing it is dead wrong.


According to SSA records in 2012, Glen was found disabled due to a seizure disorder. He ended up working, and in 2016 was told his benefits ended and he owed the agency $61k. Glen appealed his case three times.


The federal agency cut the original $61k he owed down to $55k. Then in May, an administrative law judge lowered it again, to just over $38k. But 19 days after the judge signed that decision Glen got another letter saying he now owes $99k!


“That’s like receiving a collection agency notice that says you owe $99,000 without documenting why you owe it,” says Glen.


It’s a similar tale being told across the country. We teamed up with our sister stations in eight cities, seven states, and KFF Health News and found the impact these overpayments have on recipients has been immense.


Part of the problem may be due to understaffing at the agency. It’s down thousands of employees and is using old technology. And yes, some mistakes are because of income reporting. But even when the administration makes an error, recipients are still asked to repay the money, often years later.


“The reality is, you can do everything right and still get hit by a massive overpayment from Social Security,” says Rebecca Vallas, of The Century Foundation. She is an advocate for disability economic justice and has handled overpayment cases for years as an attorney.

Vallas says beneficiaries are generally some of the lowest-income people in this country.

“The agency knows full well that they don’t have some pile of cash that they’re sitting on,” he said.


Now we’re hearing from Congress. Senator Rick Scott from Florida believes the process is missing fairness.


“If somebody lied, if there was fraud, I mean, then that person ought to be responsible for that. But when the Social Security Administration tells you a number, then they should be held accountable,” says Scott.


Congressman Mike Carey sits on the Social Security Subcommittee in the House and is also voicing concern.


“They weren’t trying to game the system, they were just playing by the rules. And it’s very unfortunate. And I don’t want anybody to ever be in that situation again. So that’s why I think we need to have a hearing. We need to come to grips with where we are right now, find out what the problems are and fix the problems,” said Carey.


That’s all Glen wants. His math shows he is owed $14,000 from the government. And he wants his money, “the bureaucracy is so bad; I expect that I’ll be deceased before it’s resolved.”

Part of the issue here is the income limits placed on SSI recipients. It’s easy to go over them.


They can only have $2k in assets for an individual and $3k as a couple.


There’s a bill in the Senate that would change that to $10,000 and $30,000 respectively. Senator Patty Murray sent me an email backing the bill saying. It’s“a simple fix that would make a real difference for more than 137,000 people in Washington state who deserve to be able to save money and work towards financial independence without jeopardizing the SSI benefits they rely on to make ends meet.”


©2023 Cox Media Group


25 Investigates: Calls for congressional hearings on Social Security overpayments


By Ted Daniel, Boston 25 News September 29, 2023 at 10:59 pm EDT

NOW PLAYING ABOVE

DEDHAM, Mass. — A U.S. Congressman is calling for hearings into Social Security overpayments following reports by 25 Investigates and its partner news organizations.

25 Investigates collaborated with sister stations in seven states, and KFF Health News to discover the government is clawing back $21 billion in benefits paid out by the Social Security Administration.


Overpayments can occur when people receiving supplemental income – for disability or survivor benefits – get a better paying job, more hours at work or a little extra money in the bank.


The extra money can flow for years before overpayments are discovered.

Sampling data contained in a prior audit suggests as many as millions of people could be impacted, but the Social Security Administration refuses to disclose how many people are impacted by the overpayments, more than a year after that data was requested.


“‘WHERE AM I GOING TO GET IT FROM?’”

Most overpayments involve the Supplemental Security Income program, which helps low-income people with disabilities, who are blind, or 65 or older.


Individual Supplemental Security Income recipients are not allowed to have more than $2,000 in assets.


25 Investigates has heard from people all over New England and the Northeast who owe for overpayments including Melissa Evans from Sutton.


Evans told 25 Investigates that she and her two kids began receiving survivor benefits after her husband of 13 years died unexpectedly.


“He passed away on February 4th, 2020,” Evans said. “So right before COVID. He died of a heart attack at home alone. And I found him.”


Evans showed 25 Investigates a letter she received from Social Security in June of this year, notifying her that she earned too much money as a full time daycare administrator during the first half of 2022.


She says Social Security is now holding her payments until roughly $3,700 is paid back.

“It’s now a year later and they’re just now saying: ‘Hey, you owe us,’” she said. “With everything going up in price, electricity, food and everything, where am I going to get it from?”


CALL FOR HEARINGS

In an interview, Rep. Mike Carey, Republican from Ohio on the Social Security subcommittee on the House side, called for congressional hearings.


He said his office has received numerous calls from constituents dealing with overpayments – and that “every” member of Congress has gotten calls on the issue.


“They weren’t trying to game the system, they were just playing by the rules,” Carey said. “And it’s very unfortunate. And I don’t want anybody to ever be in that situation again. So that’s why I think we need to have a hearing. We need to come to grips with where we are right now, find out what the problems are and fix the problems.”


The administration openly admits that staffing and funding constraints are impacting service.

The Social Security Administration said families are allowed to appeal overpayment bills if they think it’s an error or it wasn’t their fault. If the amount creates too much of a hardship, recipients can also request a waiver or payment plan.


Carey said the hearing could shed light on answers that the Social Security Administration refuses to share publicly.


“And if they’re not telling you, I can assure you that’s a question that I’m going to ask in a hearing, because I know the number has to be staggering,” Carey said.


“They’re receiving government money,” He added. “Their government employees, and they should give the answers to the American public. I mean, if we’re running into this after district after district after district, we really need to know how many people are affected.”

The AARP has said that trouble dealing with SSA is the number one kind of call they get from members: numbering thousands a year.


SSA employee union president Jessica LaPointe also welcomed congressional hearings into the impact of decades of underfunding.


“We can’t address problems if we don’t face them head on,” LaPointe said, adding: “We’re here to help the American people deal with their overpayments timely, but we do not have the resources that we need to address the problem, and that is on Congress to fix.”


“It’s a moral imperative that we fix the situation and it’s on Congress right now to do that,” she said. “They certainly can get the information from the agency if they press them… And if Congress refuses to fix it, then the constituents of lawmakers need to hold them accountable.”


More Lawmakers Respond

Our stories have also gotten the attention of several other members of Congress.

Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat of New Hampshire, said: “These reports make clear the extreme financial hardship that some people face when required to quickly correct a social security overpayment.”


And U.S. Rep. John Larson, a Democrat from Connecticut, said, “There has to be some kind of fair agreement that can be reached. But this was not the individual’s fault. This was government’s fault.”


As 25 Investigates reported last week, Sen. Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat, has reintroduced legislation that would raise the asset limit for certain individual recipients from $2,000 to $10,000.


That would prevent some, but not all, overpayments from happening.

“It’s pretty simple,” Brown said. “This law hasn’t been changed for 40 years. The asset level has been $2,000.”


Recipients also have a duty to immediately report any changes in their finances.

But as Evans explains, that’s easier said than done.


“When you call them, you’re on hold for hours,” Evans said. “And I don’t have hours to just stay on hold. Then you lose the call, and no one calls you back.”


“Find other ways than just taking someone’s check,” Evans said. “I mean, I’m not the only one.”

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.


©2023 Cox Media Group


Ch. 9 investigation into Social Security overpayment gets Washington’s attention

By Madison Carter, wsoctv.com September 28, 2023 at 5:25 pm EDT

Ch. 9 investigation into Social Security overpayment gets Washington’s attentionNOW PLAYING ABOVE

CHARLOTTE — A Channel 9 investigation is gaining traction in the nation’s capital, with lawmakers demanding answers from the Social Security Administration. There are even calls now for congressional hearings.


It all comes in the wake of our reporting on billions of dollars in overpayments to vulnerable Americans who are now being asked to pay it back. This week, Channel 9′s Madison Carter spoke with several families in Charlotte who were sent life-altering letters from the SSA.


Channel 9 and our sister stations, along with KFF Health News, have been telling stories like these around the country. Now, lawmakers in Washington are demanding answers on the overpayment outrage.


“It was two and a half years before they approved his claim,” Marty McKenzie told Carter.

When McKenzie’s adult son could no longer work, she said she was forced to support him while the system caught up.


“Rent, car payments, medical bills, everything,” she said.

When it finally did years later, she said she got a Social Security disability check on her son’s behalf.


“I got nervous about the amount of money they sent us. And I want to say it was probably between 35, $40,000,” she said.


McKenzie went to the Social Security office to make sure everything checked out. She said they told her the amount was correct, saying it included back payment for the years her son’s claim was being processed.


“Well, about three or four months after that, we got a letter saying ‘you owe back almost $14,000. We overpaid you and we’re going to stop his disability,’” McKenzie told Carter.

McKenzie said she went back to the same Social Security office that previously cleared the dollar figure.


“So you’re telling me after I made a visit, you’re going to, and you told me everything was OK? You can’t be held accountable for any of the work you do? She goes, ‘no, not really. You owe it back,’” McKenzie said.


“There’s a lot of ways to hold their feet to the fire, a lot of ways to put public pressure on them,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown.


Our investigation caught Brown’s attention. She chairs the Social Security subcommittee in the Senate.


“We’ve let the federal agency know we expect them to stop and not penalize those people,” she said.


Congressman Mike Carey serves on the House subcommittee. He’s pushing for hearings ASAP.


“I don’t want anybody to ever be in that situation again. So that’s why I think we need to have a hearing,” Rep. Carey said. “We need to come to grips with where we are right now, find out what the problems are and fix the problems.”


“Fortunately, we’ve been in a position to help him. If not, he’d probably be living under a bridge,” McKenzie said.


McKenzie wanted to share her family’s story because she said many Americans don’t have the luxury of financial support to fix the government’s mistake.


“We retired about three years ago now, and it’s not what I expected in retirement,” she said.

Channel 9 has been asking the Social Security Administration for over a year how many people are impacted by overpayments, but the administration won’t say. It’s a move that has lawmakers calling for more transparency.


The SSA has denied our requests for an interview but in a statement for our original investigation, said it is required to try to recover the money when the agency catches an overpayment.


©2023 Cox Media Group



Lawmakers demand answers from SSA after Channel 2/KFF Health News investigation


By Justin Gray, WSB-TVSeptember 28, 2023 at 6:15 pm EDT

NOW PLAYING ABOV

Lawmakers demand answers from Social Security Administration after Channel 2, Cox investigation


ATLANTA — A Channel 2 Action News investigation is gaining traction in the nation’s capital, with lawmakers demanding answers from the Social Security Administration. There are even calls for congressional hearings.


This all comes in the wake of our reporting on billions of dollars in overpayments to vulnerable Americans who are now being asked to pay it back.


Since our investigation aired September 14th, we’ve heard from families all across the country. Nearly 200 people have reached out to Channel 2 Action News, our sister Cox Media Group stations across the country and KFF Health news who partnered with us on the investigation.


“I think that is shameful,” Angela Worley told Channel 2 Investigation Reporter Justin Gray.

The Social Security Administration told Jeffrey Shaw he owes more than $51,000.

“Where does anybody have that kind of money lying around?” Shaw said.


Tammy Eichler learned she’s not alone in this.


“I saw your segment and I’m like, Oh, I’m not the only one. There’s many, many, many people out there,” Eichler said.


Channel 2 Action News told you in our original investigation about how hundreds of thousands of families are getting demand letters from Social Security, to repay benefit overpayments.


Even when it’s the government who made the mistake, you are on the hook for the money.

“It just feels like we’ve been failed,” Covington resident Kristen Cooper said.


Kristen’s husband Matt Cooper was shot in the head in the line of duty as a Covington police officer. Now, Social Security is demanding the Coopers repay $30,000 in overpayments.


The SSA is demanding the Coopers not only repay $30,000, it’s cutting their children’s monthly payments down from about $900 to just $150, because of a government calculation error.


“You think you grieved and then situations like this come up and it just brings back a level of anger and just the need to protect my family,” Matt Cooper said.


So, we took the Coopers and so many other family’s stories, along with our research to lawmakers in Washington.


“They weren’t trying to game the system, they were just playing by the rules,” Ohio Republican Congressman Mike Carey said.


Carey is pressing for the Social Security subcommittee he serves on to hold a congressional hearing.


“We do have a problem. We’ve got to address it. We’ve got to fix it. And the best way to do that is with a hearing,” Carey said.


Senate Social Security subcommittee chairman Sherrod Brown reached out to Social Security leadership after seeing our report.


“We’ve let the federal agency know we expect them to stop and not penalize those people,” Brown said.


Florida Sen. Rick Scott said citizens should not be held responsible for government mistakes.


“If somebody lied, if there was fraud, then that person ought to be responsible for that. But when the Social Security Administration tells you a number, then they should be held accountable,” Scott said.


The Social Security Administration says it is required by federal law to recover any overpayments it discovers.


SSA recovered $4.7 billion of overpayments during the 2022 fiscal year but ended that year with $21.6 billion of overpayments still uncollected, according to a November 2022 report by SSA’s inspector general.


In many cases, the overpayments were the result of errors by the government rather than the person receiving the money, the agency has stated.


For example, in a disclosure covering some of the programs involved, Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance, collectively known as OASDI, the agency reported issuing about $2 billion of overpayments in the 2022 fiscal year, of which about $1.5 billion was “within agency control.”


“The beneficiary or third party provided the information we requested, but we failed to use the data/information to validate accuracy prior to making a payment,” the agency reported.

Social Security Administration spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann declined to comment for this article or to arrange an interview with the agency’s acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi.


For some benefits, recipients are required to keep the Social Security Administration updated about changes in their circumstances, for instance, whether others are giving them food or a place to stay.


Beneficiaries can lose certain benefits if they earn or save too much. For individuals in the Supplemental Security Income program, which supports people with little or no income or other financial resources who are disabled, blind, or at least age 65, having more than $2,000 in the bank is generally disqualifying.


By the time the government catches mistakes, years can pass, and the amounts it says people owe can balloon to staggering levels. Social Security beneficiaries struggling to make ends meet described being overwhelmed and panic-stricken by initial demands that they repay the money within 30 days.


©2023 Cox Media Group


Lawmaker calls for hearing on Social Security Administration overpayments


By Shannon Butler, WFTV.comSeptember 28, 2023 at 6:31 pm EDTNOW PLAYING ABOVE

(Shannon Butler, WFTV.com)


ORLANDO, Fla. — A Channel 9 investigation is gaining traction in the nation’s capital with lawmakers demanding answers from the Social Security Administration, including a call for Congressional hearings.


It comes two weeks after we told you that the Social Security Administration is trying to collect $20 billion in overpayments from hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions, of vulnerable, low-income Americans.


Here in Florida, there are about 5 million people on some form of Social Security. People like Jasmine Gonzalez who the government says owes nearly $27,000 in overpayments, pointing to a lottery ticket she cashed for her mother 28 years ago.


“I think Social Security should really look into people’s overpayments correctly and I think they should correct their cases,” Gonzalez said. “It shouldn’t take 10 years, five years or three years to be corrected, and they’ve taken out people’s money and people who already live on a low budget.”



Since Channel 9′s first report, we have heard from people around the country in the same situation.


9 Investigates talked to lawmakers from both parties, including Congressman Mike Carey who sits on the House Subcommittee on Social Security.


“I think we need to have a hearing,” Carey said. “We need to come to grips with where we are right now, find out what the problems are, and fix the problems.”


Sen. Sherrod Brown, who sits on the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, echoed those comments.


“We’ve let the federal agency know we expect them to stop and not penalize those people,” Brown said. “They may have been overpaid over the years, but it’s not like they have a savings account now of those overpaid dollars that they can simply pay back.”


Hearings and oversight won’t stop the claw-back letters hitting mailboxes across Central Florida right now.


Florida Sen. Rick Scott called for reforms, but gave no indication that overpayments would be forgiven.


“When the Social Security Administration tells you a number, then they should be held accountable,” Scott said.


Meanwhile, the union representing Social Security employees said the agency is critically understaffed and that increased funding is needed to help deal with this and other issues, but so far, proposed policy changes have yet to pass amid gridlock in D.C.


For more than a year, we have been trying to get answers from the SSA on this. The agency has declined our request for an interview but said the agency has a responsibility to try to recover the money when it catches mistakes.


Carey said he plans to find out how many people have been impacted by this and that as a federal agency, it should give answers to the American public.


(Shannon Butler, WFTV.com)

©2023 Cox Media Group


Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.


Hundreds of thousands of people face overpayment claims from Social Security


By Shannon Butler, WFTV.com September 14, 2023 at 11:25 pm EDT


Hundreds of thousands of people face overpayment claims from Social Security Hundreds of thousands of people face overpayment claims from Social Security (Nikki DeMarco, WFTV.com/WFTV)


(Nikki DeMarco, WFTV.com/WFTV)


ORLANDO, Fla. — For more than a year, 9 Investigates has been tracking overpayments at the Social Security Administration trying to figure out just how many people have gotten notices asking them to repay money they don’t have.


So far, the federal government has refused to tell us, but what we do know, is that hundreds of thousands of people – perhaps even millions – are impacted and some of those families are right here in Central Florida including Lori, who didn’t want us to use her last name. She said one single piece of paper changed her life forever.


“I went to my mailbox and a letter from Social Security and I opened it and it was a demand letter for $121,000, payable in 30 days. For the explanation was for overpayment,” she said.

Lori worked for the Postal Service until a back injury in 1993 had her filing for her disability insurance benefit payments. Since 2001, she had been collecting about $900 a month from Social Security for more than 15 years and couldn’t get an answer from Social Security on why she owed them.


“So then I’m literally at the point of frustration and I’m so scared because, you know, I’m looking I’m going to lose everything,” she said.


So afraid that she sold her house, her car and even took her money out of the bank.

“We live we lived like...fugitives! No money in my bank account for the first time in my life and just because I didn’t want them to to reach in and grab it,” Lori said.


Records show the majority of the overpayments are from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), basically retirement-aged, low-income and/or disabled beneficiaries who exceeded asset or income limits. Many of the mistakes are due to income reporting errors, but even when it’s the agency’s own mistake, it still demands the money back. That was the case for Lori.


It turns out, the Social Security Administration said she didn’t disclose the workman’s comp payments she was getting. But she did, the system just didn’t show it, and the agency started taking all of her checks as re-payment.


“You know, if it didn’t happen to me, I would never believe it because there’s not one person who I’ve shared this story with believes that something that they could do that. And I said, yeah. Living proof. They’re living proof that not only could they, they did,” Lori said.


Attorney Richard Culbertson has spent 40 years handling social security cases and said dealing with the agency gets worse every year.


“The issue, most of the time, nobody answers the phone at the Social Security office to help you with your issue,” Culbertson said. “There is something wrong with the management of Social Security. They just let all these things go and if they won’t answer the phone and they won’t talk to us, then no one is dealing with these systemic problems.”


The Office of Inspector General, which audits the agency, has noted about $4-to-5 billion in overpayments get repaid each year. But there is $21 billion it still has not recovered.

Rebecca Vallas is a former legal aid attorney who worked with folks who received those overpayment letters. She now works with The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that fights to make public policies fairer for people across the United States. She said she knows what thousands of families now know: the system is broken.


“What we see is huge paperwork processing delays that have been exacerbated by inadequate social security staffing and a grossly reliable 1-800 line that makes it even more difficult for beneficiaries to report changes in their earnings,” Vallas said. “We have an overpayment crisis on our hands and it’s low-income beneficiaries who are getting hardest hit.”


Angela Digeronimo helps lead the SSA employee union and says in her 27 years working for the agency, she has seen it shrink. She estimates it’s down 100,000 employees nationwide. She said technology is also outdated, and for a decade SSA has been critically underfunded.


“It’s unfortunate because this agency is the number one anti-poverty program that there is out there and it affects everyone right from cradle to grave,” Digeronimo said. “Social security is going to be in your life.”


It took the agency six years to settle Lori’s case. In May, a judge ruled the agency must pay her back the money it withheld from her monthly check as repayment. But Lori’s life was already upended. She left Florida and moved to Georgia where it was cheaper to live.


An SSA spokesperson declined our request for an on-camera interview, but you can read the full statement below, as well as links where you can find help if you find yourself in this situation.


“We continually strive to improve stewardship of our programs and reduce improper payments. While staffing losses and resource constraints have challenged our service delivery, our payment accuracy rates remain very high.


We understand getting notice of an overpayment may be unsettling or unclear and we work with people to navigate the overpayment process. When overpayments occur, we inform people about the fact and amount of the overpayment, their right to appeal, and the options to repay or (in some cases) receive waivers for the overpayment debts. People can appeal an overpayment if they disagree with the overpayment debt decision or the overpayment amount. They also have the right to ask Social Security to waive collection of their debt if they believe the overpayment was not their fault and they cannot afford to pay it back. We do not pursue recoveries while an initial appeal or waiver is pending. We examine each waiver request to determine if the individual caused the debt and their ability to repay the debt. If we can’t waive the debt, we have flexible repayment options—including repayment of as low as $10 per month.


Our payment accuracy rates are high, yet even small error rates add up to substantial improper payment amounts, given the magnitude of the benefits we pay each year. For instance, in fiscal year 2021, we issued nearly $1.2 trillion in benefit payments. Our Social Security Retirement, Survivors, and Disability benefit payment accuracy is consistently high—less than 0.5 percent of Social Security payments are overpayments. For the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, overpayments also represent a small percentage of payments—about 7 percent—but are higher than our overall payment accuracy rate partially due to the complexity in administering income and resource limits and asset evaluations.


Nonetheless, Congress recognized that beneficiaries will be overpaid. Therefore, consistent with our stewardship responsibilities, Social Security is required by law to adjust benefits or recover debts when we establish that someone received payments to which they are not entitled and an overpayment occurs. We must maintain our responsibilities to taxpayers to be good stewards of the trust funds. Each person’s situation is unique, and we handle overpayments on a case-by-case basis. Overpayments can occur for many reasons, such as when a beneficiary does not timely report work or other changes that can affect their benefits.


Improving our business processes to serve our customers better remains a top priority. We are making better use of data and technology to prevent some overpayments. We continue to invest in improvements to make it easier for people to interact with us so we can prevent overpayments. For instance, we are developing a new electronic payroll data exchange program that will automatically use wage information to adjust payment amounts when appropriate, which will help reduce improper payments and reporting responsibilities for beneficiaries.


We are also working to streamline and simplify our waiver request form to make it easier to understand and less burdensome for people to request a debt waiver. Through proposed rulemaking, we plan to propose to simplify our rules for how a person can demonstrate eligibility for waiver of recovery of an overpayment debt.


We do not report on the number of debtors.”


This investigation is a collaboration between Channel 9 Eyewitness News and our sister stations in seven states, along with KFF Health News.

©2023 Cox Media Group


Shannon joined the Eyewitness News team in 2013.



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