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Social Security Chief Orders Broad Review of Benefit Overpayments 
KFF Health News / CMG TV Stations Investigation

Social Security Chief Orders Broad Review of Benefit Overpayments 

(Photo by John Nacion/SOPA Images/Sipa USA/via AP Images)

The federal agency that oversees Social Security announced Wednesday that it will review the way it handles “overpayments” money it sends beneficiaries that it later determines they weren’t entitled to receive.

The Social Security Administration made the announcement weeks after KFF Health News and Cox Media Group reported that the agency has been trying to reclaim billions of dollars from beneficiaries, including many poor, retired, and disabled people who have spent the money and are unable to repay it.

“Despite our high accuracy rates, I am putting together 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 news release.

Kijakazi said she had chosen a “senior official” to lead the team and report directly to her. 

During the 2022 fiscal year, the agency recovered $4.7 billion of overpayments, according to a report by SSA’s inspector general.

By the time the agency catches an error and notifies a beneficiary that they have been overpaid, years may have passed and the amount involved can reach tens of thousands of dollars or more.

In the wake of the KFF Health News/CMG investigation, some members of the House and Senate called on the Social Security Administration to be held accountable and to change its approach.

“The government’s got 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 problem, and people there should be held accountable,” Brown added.

In a tweet today, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a member of the Committee on Aging, said he was “glad to see swift action being taken.”

The investigative report showed that overpayments can result from the government making a mistake or from beneficiaries failing to comply with requirements, intentionally or otherwise.

One major factor: to qualify for certain benefits, people are limited as to how much they can save, and the limits haven’t been updated for inflation in decades. 

(WJAX-TV, Jacksonville)

For individuals in one of the Social Security programs, the asset limit now stands at $2,000.

The troubles can also be attributed to rules that are hard for beneficiaries and federal workers to follow; manual processes at the agency that are susceptible to human error; and understaffing that makes it difficult for beneficiaries to get through to SSA employees and for employees to keep up with the workload.

By the Social Security Administration’s own account, many of the overpayments are a result of errors or lapses 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 the payments are overpayments, the agency said in the Oct. 4 news release.

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 are disabled, blind, or at least 65. In that program, overpayments represent about 8% of payments, the SSA news release said.  

The agency ascribed the 8% overpayment rate to the complexity of the SSI program.

“When overpayments do happen, the agency is required by law to adjust benefits or recover debts,” the news release said.

In a tweet, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a member of the Committee on Aging, said he was “glad to see swift action being taken.”(Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images)

If a beneficiary “doesn’t agree that they’ve been overpaid, or believes the amount is incorrect, they can appeal,” the news release noted. “If they believe they shouldn’t 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 “streamlined waiver request form that is easier to understand and less burdensome.” 

Some beneficiaries have told KFF Health News and CMG that trying to communicate with the agency, let alone sort out an alleged overpayment, can be exasperating. In the meantime, the government can stop or reduce their monthly benefit checks. 

Some people struggling to survive on monthly benefits say even arrangements that allow them to repay the government gradually can leave them unable to cover their rent or buy food.

The Social Security Administration faces competing pressures. It’s required to pay people the benefits to which they are legally entitled and not to misuse taxpayer funds. Trying to claw back overpayments from vulnerable beneficiaries runs counter to the goals of safety-net programs, lawmakers and advocates for the disabled, among others, have argued.