I-TEAM: ‘Hold their feet to the fire;’ Congress demanding answers on SSA overpayment bills

DAYTON — The Social Security Administration (SSA) paid out more than $20 billion to people who shouldn’t have received money. Now the agency wants its money back.

The I-Team has been working for more than two years to figure out just how many people have received letters asking to repay money they don’t have, but the federal government won’t release the number. Still, we continue to hear from people across the Miami Valley who’ve been stuck with hefty bills.

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE: I-TEAM: ‘Social Security should help people;’ Families stuck paying hefty SSA overpayment bills

Angela Worley, of Dayton, has a document trail laid out on her dining room table. It’s all part of the case for her mother’s Social Security overpayment notice. The government sent Phyllis Worley a letter in the mail saying they’d overpaid her nearly $7,000 and demanded it back.

“She was extremely anxious. It’s, you know, it’s devastating,” Worley recalled.

Worley was one of the first people to reach out to the I-Team after our original report where we talked to people across the country dealing with the overpayment outrage.

“It made me happy to know that, not that this is happening, but that people like you are able to investigate that and hold the people that our tax money goes to accountable,” she told the I-Team’s lead investigative reporter John Bedell.

“We have to depend on our Social Security and those people to do their job right and fairly and keep things from getting this messed up,” Tammy Eichler told the I-Team.

The 70-year-old retiree described sleepless nights after receiving an overpayment notice from SSA demanding she repay $5,575 in retirement benefits. She still doesn’t understand what went wrong.

“I’ve been trying to call Social Security and on the phone for like an hour, just on hold every time,” Eicher said. She added she’s also taken trips to the SSA district office in Piqua to try and get her case resolved.

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At one point, she said an SSA employee told her she’d “never seen an account as messed up” as hers was and said it looked as though the agency had been repeatedly recalculating her benefit amount. Eichler filed an appeal and waited.

“At 60 days, I still didn’t hear. So, I called Social Security again. And they said it could take six months to a year because of so many people being involved in this mess. And I said what are people supposed to do in the meantime,” Eichler recalled. “They need to make it right by all these people that’s been affected by this.”

Eichler is one of two dozen people who contacted the I-Team after our original report with out sister stations and KFF Health News. We’ve since heard from nearly 200 people across the country dealing with the overpayment outrage.

Now, the outrage has gotten the attention of Congress, which wants to put Social Security Officials under oath to see just how many people have been impacted by this.

Miami Valley Congressman Mike Carey (R-Ohio) sits on the House Subcommittee on Social Security. He told the I-Team that “every” member of Congress has gotten calls from constituents dealing with overpayments. He called it a huge problem and is demanding answers.

“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,” Carey said.

Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Social Security. He told the I-Team that there are several ways to “hold their feet to the fire” and publicly pressure the SSA “to do the right thing.”

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE: I-TEAM: Miami Valley families continue to be stuck paying hefty SSA overpayment bills

“We’ve let the federal agency know we expect them to stop and not penalize those people,” Brown.

Our I-Team investigation found SSA audits show Americans repay between $4 and $5 billion in overpayments each year, but the grand total of overpayments the agency still has not recovered is more than $21 billion. Even when it’s the SSA’s own mistake, it still demands people pay the money back.

“It’s a moral imperative that we can fix the situation and it’s on Congress right now to do that,” Jessica LaPointe, a longtime Social Security worker who leads the employee union, said.

LaPointe previously told the I-Team that critically low staffing levels mean it could be years before workers reassess people’s cases and catch overpayments. It could take even longer to send out the overpayment letters.

The I-Team spoke to attorney Michael Rake who said his Dayton law firm specializes in Social Security and Veteran’s Disability Law. He said he’s seeing more and more overpayment cases and they’re difficult to fight.

“Particularly when the case is very, very old and the mistake happened many, many years ago, it’s oftentimes difficult to entangle what exactly happened and what went wrong in order to fix it,” Rake said.

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He told Bedell that there should be accountability for staffers who make mistakes and policy changes from Congress to prevent them.

“Correcting the mistake ought to be more than just chasing down the individual who relied on your mistake to their detriment,” Rake said.

Worley and Eichler both agree that something needs to be done.

“I think that it’s shameful. I really, really think that it’s shameful,” Worley said.

The SSA declined our request for an on-camera interview but in a statement said they “continually strive to improve stewardship of our programs and reduce improper payments. While staffing losses and resource constraints have challenged our service delivery, our payment accuracy rates remain very high.”

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