I-TEAM: How Social Security claws back billions of dollars it mistakenly sends to people

DAYTON — The News Center 7 I-Team is investigating how the Social Security Administration claws back billions of dollars it mistakenly sends to millions of Americans. After calculating their benefits incorrectly, sometimes for months or even years, the agency demands that money back.

Now, as a part of News Center 7′s months-long investigation in partnership with WHIO-TV’s Cox Media Group sister stations and KFF Health News, the I-Team found most people hit with the surprise bills don’t challenge them. And that allows the government to cut the benefits so many Americans rely on to live.

“Social Security should be to help people, not to destroy them,” Addie Arnold told the I-Team on News Center 7 at 5:00. “So when they sent me a bill saying that we owed $60,000 it was like, ‘well, I don’t know how you’re going to get it,’” Arnold said with a scoff.

>>RELATED I-TEAM INVESTIGATION: ‘It’s hell;’ Social Security clawbacks driving some into homelessness

The I-Team first talked to Arnold as a part of our original investigation in September that first exposed how families are being hit with overpayment notices from the Social Security Administration.

Since then, as a part of our ongoing investigation with CMG and KFF Health News, we’ve heard from more than 400 families who’ve gotten demand letters in the mail from the agency asking them to pay back thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.

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

“She was extremely anxious,” Angela Worley, of Dayton, told the I-Team after the SSA sent her mother an overpayment notice saying she owed $6,765.

“It’s devastating,” Worley said.

“It’s just scary to my husband and me,” Tammy Eichler from Greenville told the I-Team. “Where are we supposed to come up with that money?” The Social Security Administration sent Eichler a notice saying it had overpaid her $5,575 and wanted the money back. This was tied to Eichler’s SSA retirement benefit, which the agency calculates for you. Eicher told the I-Team she still has no idea what went wrong and triggered the overpayment notice.

The I-Team filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for internal SSA records which show more than two million Americans get hit with an overpayment notice each year. That’s a number we’ve uncovered is more than double what the agency’s acting commissioner told Congress during a hearing in October.

“986,912 people,” Social Security Acting Commissioner Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi said when Miami Valley Congressman Mike Carey asked her during the hearing, “Do we have a number of how many people have been impacted by these overpayments?”

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Just days after the I-Team’s reporting on the results of our FOIA request, but seven weeks after her testimony, Acting Commissioner Kijakazi sent lawmakers a letter apologizing for giving what she called, “a preliminary, unvetted and partial answer,” adding, “I very much regret not contacting you with more information right away.”

Rep. Carey was one of the lawmakers on the House Subcommittee on Social Security who responded to Kijakazi with their own letter calling her delayed apology “unacceptable,” writing in part:

While we understand that your statement at the hearing may have resulted from an honest mistake or misunderstanding, we remain concerned that the SSA appears to have delayed informing the Committee of the incomplete and unvetted nature of the information provided at the hearing until the day that this omission was made public as a result of the SSA’s response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The SSA’s failure to disclose this mistake for weeks after it was first identified, and only disclosing it when forced to do so pursuant to a FOIA request, is unacceptable from an agency that is expected to hold the public’s trust.

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Here’s what else the I-Team uncovered in those internal Social Security Administration Records: out of all the Americans hit with SSA overpayment notices in the mail, very few try to challenge them.

The agency’s latest annual financial report shows of the more than 2.1 million people who experienced an overpayment in Fiscal Year 2023, just 12% filed to have it waived or reconsidered.

>>RELATED: Miami Valley congressman calling delayed apology from Social Security Chief ‘unacceptable’

And in many cases, when the beneficiary takes no action – unable to navigate a complex and confusing system – the agency does what it did to so many people we’ve talked to: it reduces or cuts off their monthly checks.

“Until next June I will not be getting Social Security,” Tammy Eichler said. “That in itself is just – it’s horrifying.”

“We shouldn’t be worrying about our livelihood in this way,” Anthony Hansbro, of Springfield, told the I-Team. “They’re taxing us. For money we don’t got. For their mistake,” Hansbro said. Hansbro and his girlfriend, Gina Westmoreland, live together in Clark County and showed News Center 7 overpayment notices they’ve each gotten from the Social Security Administration demanding a combined $38,885.86 back.

The I-Team has learned they’re not alone. Our investigation has uncovered the agency has $23 billion worth of uncollected overpayments.

But Social Security Administration records the I-Team has reviewed show of the $4.9 billion the agency recovered last year, 73.8% of that amount came from lowering or suspending beneficiaries’ monthly checks to pay off the debt. The SSA’s recently released annual financial report for Fiscal Year 2023 says, “Benefit withholding typically accounts for the largest recovery of our total collections amount.”

The SSA determines what it pays to people – and that can change over time. In many overpayment cases, the monthly checks coming into people’s bank accounts match what the agency told them they were supposed to be getting. So people don’t know they were being paid too much until the overpayment notices show up in the mail months or even years later.

The Social Security Administration has told the I-Team it is required by federal law to try to collect when it realizes it overpaid someone.

Since our reporting, the SSA’s current acting commissioner has ordered a top-to-bottom review of the agency’s overpayment policies and procedures.

And, as the I-Team first reported last week, lawmakers from both parties in charge of SSA oversight are now requiring monthly updates about what’s being done to fix the problem of overpayments.

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