I-TEAM: Social Security clawbacks hit 1M+ more people than agency chief told Congress

DAYTON — More than two million Americans each year face overpayments from the Social Security Administration – more than double the amount the agency’s acting commissioner provided to members of Congress during a hearing in October.

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Internal agency records obtained by News Center 7, our Cox Media Group sister stations, and KFF Health News show the head of the agency provided Congress with a smaller subset of beneficiaries when asked about the total number of people impacted by overpayments, despite having the larger numbers listed on the same document from which she was reading.

The Social Security Administration disclosed that document this week in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by CMG/KFF after a spokesperson repeatedly declined to answer questions about whether the numbers presented in the hearing were totals or a smaller subset. The FOIA request specifically identified the document from which Acting Commissioner Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi read with a photo of a deputy commissioner handing it to her while she was testifying.

The numbers represent the number of people who were paid too much in their monthly benefits checks and then faced aggressive attempts by the agency to claw that money back.

The Social Security Administration’s overpayment policies and procedures have faced new scrutiny since September when the News Center 7 I-Team along with our CMG sister stations in seven cities and KFF Health News first reported on $21 billion in uncollected overpayments and featured the stories of vulnerable people around the Miami Valley and across the country who had received notices to repay thousands to the agency.

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE: I-TEAM: Ohio congressman presses Social Security Administration on overpayment numbers

“I think that is shameful,” Angela Worley, of Dayton, told the I-Team.

Worley’s mother was one of the SSA overpayment notice recipients.

Since our original report, we’ve heard from more than 400 families who’ve gotten demand letters from the agency asking them to pay back thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

“Where does anybody have that kind of money lying around,” Jeffrey Shaw, an SSA overpayment notice recipient, said.

Kathleen Roming, from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said she’s been wanting to know these numbers “for a long time.” She also used to work for the SSA.

“They’re very focused on the dollars. And historically, they haven’t been focused on the people. And I think it’s really important and it’s because of reporting like yours that there is a lot of focus now among policymakers on what these overpayments do to the actual people,” Roming said.

Many had their monthly benefits reduced or stopped by SSA in an attempt to recover the money, often years later, and even when the overpayment was the agency’s fault.

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For months, the Social Security Administration had refused to disclose how many people have been overpaid, annually reporting the total dollar amounts and error rate instead. A spokesperson repeatedly issues statements saying, “we do not report on the number of debtors.”

Then, in a Congressional hearing in October prompted by reaction to our reporting, Miami Valley Congressman Mike Carey (R-Ohio) directly asked SSA’s Acting Commissioner the question.

“Do we have a number of how many people have been impacted by these overpayments,” Rep. Carey asked.

She answered with numbers for Fiscal Years 2022 and 2023 – indicating roughly 1 million people experienced overpayments in each of those years.

After Rep. Carey began his response, Kijakazi added “this is under Social Security.”

That phrase raised questions about the numbers she provided, when compared with her written testimony which used the term “the Social Security program” to describe Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) beneficiaries, and separately referred to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which has a higher rate of overpayment errors according to annual SSA data.

The document also shed light on how few beneficiaries challenge the agency’s overpayment notices by filing for a waiver or reconsideration, just 12% of the 2.2 million people who experienced an overpayment in FY 2023.

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In a written statement, sent to accompany the released document from the I-Team’s FOIA request, a spokesperson said the agency’s overpayment systems were not designed to easily determine this information. The statement cast further doubt on the numbers Kijakazi provided to Congress… and the numbers contained in the document.

“Staff provided unverified numbers, which were gathered quickly to help inform the overpayment landscape, to the Acting Commissioner during the hearing. We cannot confirm the accuracy of the information,” wrote SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann.

The number of people impacted by overpayments was highlighted as one of four “key moments” from the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee hearing in October, with the headline: “Seems Like an Awful Lot”: One Million Americans a Year Affected by Social Security’s Improper Payment Highlights Need for Reform.

Tiggemann added that the agency has also informed the Congressional committee of the discrepancies in the numbers.

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Within weeks of the initial CMG/KFF reporting in September, Kijakazi ordered a top-to-bottom review of the agency’s overpayment policies and procedures.

“As part of the review directed by the Acting Commissioner, we are looking at how best to inform the Agency, the public, and Congress about this workload,” Tiggemann said.

She said there is no timeframe for when the review is expected to be completed.

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