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In Congress, Calls Mount for Social Security to Address Clawbacks

An investigation by KFF Health News and Cox Media Group gained further traction on Capitol Hill this week as additional members of Congress formally demanded answers from the Social Security Administration about billions of dollars it mistakenly paid to beneficiaries — and then ordered they repay.

Two members of a Senate panel that oversees Social Security sent a letter to the agency’s acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, urging her to do more to prevent overpayments and “limit harm to vulnerable beneficiaries” when trying to recover the money.

As KFF Health News and Cox Media Group television stations jointly reported in September, the Social Security Administration routinely sends notices to beneficiaries saying they received benefits to which they weren’t entitled — and demanding they pay the government back, often within 30 days.

(WFXT-TV, Boston)

In the 2022 federal fiscal year, for example, the agency sent overpayment notices to more than 1 million people, Kijakazi told Congress in mid-October.

Alleged overpayments can continue for years before the government notifies a recipient and seeks repayment. By then, the amount a beneficiary allegedly owes the government can reach tens of thousands of dollars or more. People living check to check likely would have spent the money.

To recoup money owed, the government can reduce or stop people’s monthly benefit checks.

“[W]e have been deeply concerned by stories from our constituents and recent reports of the extreme financial hardship placed upon beneficiaries who are asked to quickly repay in full or whose payments are halted, reduced, or reclaimed as the agency attempts to correct improper payments, many of which occurred due to agency error,” Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) wrote in a Nov. 28 letter to Kijakazi.

Citing the news organizations’ reporting, the senators asked what Kijakazi is doing to prevent harm to beneficiaries and what Congress can do.

Hassan and Cassidy are on the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) sent Kijakazi a letter on Nov. 17 calling the agency’s actions “unacceptable.”

“If anyone intentionally defrauded the system or lied to receive payments at other taxpayers’ expense, they should absolutely be held accountable and repay this debt to taxpayers,” Scott wrote. “But it’s completely wrong for the federal government to go after well-intentioned Americans who did all the right things and trusted that their government was doing the right thing, too.”

Many of the people affected are disabled, low-income, or both and are enrolled in the Social Security Administration’s Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income programs.

In the 2022 fiscal year, the agency issued an estimated $4.6 billion in SSI overpayments, which represented 8% of payments in that program, according to the agency’s latest annual financial report.

Kijakazi recently told a House subcommittee the 8% was “a small percentage.”

In other programs administered by the agency, there were an estimated $6.5 billion in overpayments in fiscal 2022, which amounted to one-half of 1%. Kijakazi called that overpayment rate “extremely low.”

During the 2023 fiscal year, which ended on Sept. 30, the agency recovered $4.9 billion in overpayments, according to a recent statement by Social Security’s inspector general. At the end of that period, an additional $23 billion of accumulated overpayments remained uncollected, the statement said.

Since KFF Health News and Cox Media Group TV stations published and broadcast news reports on overpayment clawbacks in September, several members of the House and Senate have written to the Social Security Administration calling for change or answers.

“Many of these overpayment notices come as a complete surprise to SSA beneficiaries, leaving them confused, shocked, and scared that they cannot pay what SSA says they owe,” Rep. Ruben Gallego, an Arizona Democrat and Senate candidate, said in a Sept. 29 letter. “And, because of an indefinite ‘look-back period’, SSA can collect funds from a recipient for an error going back decades,” he added.

Asked about the latest letters from lawmakers, Social Security spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann said the agency “will respond directly to the requestors.”

Kijakazi said in October that she ordered a “top-to-bottom” review of how the agency handles overpayments.

Under federal law, the agency must seek recovery of overpaid amounts unless circumstances warrant waiving the debts, Kijakazi said in recent testimony to Congress. There’s no time limit on efforts to collect the debts, she said.

In their letter to the acting commissioner, Cassidy and Hassan asked what the agency is doing to make it less burdensome for beneficiaries to appeal or seek a waiver when an overpayment is the government’s fault.

In response to questions for this article, Tiggemann, the Social Security spokesperson, said, “We will examine our policies and procedures — including our regulations — to determine where administrative updates to the overpayment recovery and waiver process may reduce the complexity and burden for the people we serve.”

Scott, the Florida Republican, asked if the review Kijakazi announced in October would be disclosed to the public. In a written response to questions for this article, the Social Security spokesperson didn’t say.

Samantha Manning of CMG’s Washington news bureau contributed to this report.

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