The Senate Finance Committee is ramping up oversight of Social Security’s overpayment problem and plans to meet with the agency every month “until it is fixed.”
The Social Security Administration assured lawmakers in the past that it had been addressed, but “what you all found in your reporting is that the problem hadn’t been fixed,” Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in an interview.
Wyden was referring to an ongoing investigation by KFF Health News and Cox Media Group television stations reporting how the agency has been issuing billions of dollars in overpayments — benefits it claims people never should have received — and then, sometimes years later, demanding they pay the money back.
“Millions of these individuals are walking an economic tightrope, balancing their food bill against the fuel bill, the fuel bill against the rent bill,” Wyden said. “And they have one of these overpayments and it just hits them like a wrecking ball.”
Meanwhile, congressional legislation that would raise asset limits for millions of Social Security recipients for the first time in decades has been gaining support.
The amounts the agency alleges people owe the government often total tens of thousands of dollars. The recipients include many of the nation’s most vulnerable — people who are disabled and have minimal savings and incomes. Often the overpayments result from errors or lapses on the part of the Social Security Administration.
The agency has been sending overpayment notices to more than 2 million people a year, according to a government document KFF Health News and CMG obtained through a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The notices typically ask recipients to repay the government within 30 days. They also explain how to appeal or request that the government waive the debt.
The Finance Committee oversees Social Security. Wyden spoke with KFF Health News and CMG on Dec. 12 in his first interview with the news organizations since they began reporting on Social Security overpayments and clawbacks months ago. He was elaborating on a statement the committee posted last week.
“As the point person for getting this fixed, I’m committing to getting this turned around,” Wyden said.
“Your reporting has just been invaluable in terms of kind of opening up a lot of visibility and awareness to something that needs to be fixed.”
Wyden is co-sponsor of a Senate bill that would address one of the root causes of overpayments.
In the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides monthly checks to people who have little or no income or assets and are over 65 or disabled, asset limits for beneficiaries haven’t been adjusted since the 1980s. Those limits stand at $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples.
The bill, spearheaded by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), would raise the asset limits to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively, and adjust them for inflation in the future.
The bill has seven other co-sponsors in the Senate, including recent additions Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Appropriations Committee.
Chief executives of several major Wall Street firms, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley, expressed support for the bill at a recent hearing, CNBC reported.
At a September news conference on Capitol Hill, a representative of JPMorgan Chase, which also backs the proposal, said the asset limits often prevent employees from participating in a 401(k) retirement plan to which the firm makes matching contributions.
A parallel bill in the House of Representatives has 10 lawmakers behind it.
“With growing bipartisan support in Congress and among the business and faith communities, we have a good chance to finally get this done,” Brown said in a statement for this article.
Legislation to raise the asset limits could be included in a government funding bill early next year, Brown spokesperson Kevin Donohoe said.
Wyden said he hopes the legislation becomes a campaign issue in the election year and that candidates are asked whether they support it.
The monthly meetings with the Social Security Administration will begin when a new commissioner is in place, Wyden said. President Joe Biden’s nominee to head the agency, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (D), cleared the Finance Committee and is awaiting a confirmation vote by the full Senate.
In a recent hearing, O’Malley said accounts of people facing clawbacks were “heartbreaking” and promised to make the issue a priority.
Wyden said he expects the oversight meetings will include the top Republican on the Finance Committee, Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho.
A spokesperson for Crapo, Mandi Critchfield, said he “is committed to addressing the overpayments issue, and looks forward to working with Senator Wyden to conduct proper oversight.”
One of the goals for those meetings, Wyden said, is to find out whether the agency can do more about overpayments using the legal powers it already has, including the authority to waive debts.
Wyden said he has discussed Social Security overpayments and clawbacks with officials at the White House.
In the interview, Wyden also addressed a recent report by KFF Health News and CMG that, according to the results of a public records request, the SSA has been sending overpayment notices to over a million more people a year than the agency’s acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi, disclosed at an October House hearing.
“When you have Social Security officials not telling the truth — and that’s how I would characterize that report on the number of people for whom there was actually a problem — it really damages this incredibly important program’s credibility,” Wyden said.
The news organizations obtained a copy of a piece of paper from which Kijakazi read aloud some numbers but not others at the October hearing.
SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann said last week the agency could not confirm the accuracy of the counts — those Kijakazi presented at the hearing and those she left out.
Meanwhile, senior Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee issued a statement this week calling for action on overpayments and clawbacks.
“Recent news reports have highlighted that the harm and unfairness Social Security beneficiaries experience after unknowingly being overpaid is more widespread than previously thought,” Reps. John B. Larson of Connecticut and Danny K. Davis of Illinois said.
Larson is the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, and Davis is the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee on Work and Welfare.
“The need for action is clear,” they said. “There must be a fundamental overhaul of Social Security’s overpayment process – one that puts seniors and Americans with severe disabilities first.”
While the government is at fault for some overpayments, others result from beneficiaries failing to comply with requirements, intentionally or otherwise. That can include failing to keep the SSA updated about items such as earnings, assets, and in-kind support — for example, whether family members are giving the beneficiary food or a place to stay.
Systemic problems also contribute.
The SSA has relied on manual systems, and those are subject to human error.
Rules are complex and difficult for SSA staff and beneficiaries alike to follow.
People who receive federal disability benefits yet try to work can easily run afoul of restrictions not only on how much they are allowed to save but also on how much they are allowed to earn. For individuals who aren’t blind, the monthly limit is $1,470.
The SSA relies heavily on beneficiaries to report changes in income, assets, and the like. For instance, the agency has been slow to implement systems that would automatically tap payroll data from outside sources.
Beneficiaries and advocates for Social Security recipients say the agency frequently loses information they submit. Getting through to humans at the agency can be extremely difficult, they say. Wait times are long, and calls get dropped.
O’Malley, the nominee for commissioner, recently told the Senate Finance Committee that the agency has a “customer service crisis.”
“The current wait times, backlogs, and delays are simply unacceptable,” O’Malley wrote.
The agency has cited staffing and funding. In the 2023 fiscal year, “we began to rebuild our workforce after ending FY 2022 with the lowest staffing level in 25 years,” the acting commissioner said in an October statement to a congressional subcommittee.
The agency closed field offices during the pandemic. That made it more difficult for beneficiaries to communicate with the SSA, and it caused problems to pile up.
The agency checks benefits retrospectively, which leaves it playing catch-up, researchers at the Urban Institute have said.
Regardless of who was originally at fault, by the time the SSA issues an overpayment notice, years can pass and the alleged overpayment total can balloon.
Under federal law, the agency must try to recover overpaid amounts, Kijakazi said in her October statement, and there is no statute of limitations. To collect debts, the SSA can reach back decades and across generations.
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