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.
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