Families say they lost Social Security benefits due to agency erroneously counting COVID-19 checks

Families across the country tell 25 Investigates and its reporting partners the Social Security Administration may be mistakenly penalizing recipients for COVID-19 stimulus checks.

Some members of Congress are now trying to address rising concerns about Social Security Administration checks slashed, and even shut-off, because of overpayments the administration failed to catch.

How much is the government requesting? 25 Investigates found the government is clawing back $21 billion dollars in overpayments nationwide.

Social Security recipients are notified by mail when the administration wants their money back.

The letters say the amount owed — but it’s up to the recipient to find out why.

Records show the majority of the overpayments are from Supplemental Security Income — or SSI — beneficiaries who exceeded asset or income limits. Those beneficiaries are retirement-aged, low-income, and/or people with disabilities.

Through the course of our reporting, we’ve been hearing from people in New England, and nationwide, who say they are being flagged for assets that shouldn’t count against them.

Becky Johnson — a former Bostonian now living in Portland, Maine — said she’s faced a more than $3,500 overpayment bill.

“They pretty much gave me less than two weeks to pay our overpayment, which is over $3,500,” Johnson told 25 Investigates.

Her family gets SSI for their 9-year-old son who has autism.

“It’s forced me to completely re-budget — not just my son’s SSI and how much he’s getting monthly, but our other expenses,” Johnson said.

Becky says SSA estimated her husband would earn too much money at his job over one month for her son to qualify for his full disability check.

Overpayments can occur when people exceed income limits, or if they have too much money in the bank.

In North Carolina, Dave Greune’s daughter, Julia, receives benefits because she is blind and has cerebral palsy.

During the pandemic, she received $3,200 in stimulus checks.

Now, her father tells us SSA has frozen her monthly payments and is demanding thousands be returned.

“I just assumed since the government put the money in, they would understand that she’s going to have extra money,” Greune said.

Social Security’s own rules say COVID-19 stimulus checks should not count as assets or income.

Kathleen Romig, director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says when COVID-19 stimulus dollars get mixed with other money, it’s impossible to prove that the money is still sitting there years later.

“The principle of not punishing people for receiving this assistance really makes sense,” Romig said. “But figuring out how to make that work is a difficult and maybe even impossible problem to solve.”

In 2021, SSA directed employees not to count COVID-19 stimulus money as income or assets for one year — to avoid overpayments.

Later that was changed to indefinitely.

SSA just updated its procedures again two months ago — in another emergency message.

“Because there have been a series of emergency messages on this topic, it seems like there has been continued confusion and probably continued problems with this over time,” Romig said.

As 25 Investigates and its reporting partners first revealed last month, hundreds of thousands of families have been hit with overpayment demands from Social Security.

The agency has, thus far, refused to disclose exactly how many Americans have been impacted by these overpayments.

The SSA’s acting commissioner has since launched a review of overpayment policies and procedures.

How the administration is calculating the money people have left from COVID-19 checks could be a part of that review.

In Greune’s case, Social Security initially demanded Julia repay more than double the amount she got in stimulus: about $7,300.

It has since lowered that amount a bit… but hasn’t acknowledged any stimulus money error.

We partnered with our sister stations in eight cities across seven states, and KFF Health News, to show the impact the demands for repayment were having on the recipients, many of whom were poor, elderly, or disabled. The overpayments were often in the thousands of tens of thousands of dollars and were sometimes the result of the government’s own mistakes.

Following our earlier reporting, members of Congress called for a hearing to examine many of these issues.

That hearing is currently scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

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