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I-TEAM: Senators demand answers from Social Security for clawbacks tied to Covid relief

DAYTON — A group of U.S. senators is demanding answers from the Social Security Administration to address why the agency, in violation of its own policy, has been reducing and suspending people’s benefits because of the money they received as COVID-19 relief payments.

Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, and Bob Casey of Pennsylvania all signed the letter, addressed to acting SSA Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi on Wednesday saying they were “deeply concerned that beneficiaries are receiving overpayment notices in error” and wanted answers to a list of questions within 30 days.

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In 2020 and 2021, to counter the economic fallout of the Covid pandemic, the government distributed relief payments to eligible Americans totaling as much as $3,200. The payments typically arrived automatically in mailboxes or bank accounts.

But, as KFF Health News and Cox Media Group television stations, including the News Center 7 I-Team, reported earlier this week, some recipients say the payments had an unintended consequence: They led the Social Security Administration to claw back other federal benefits, including monthly support payments for people who are poor, disabled, or at least 65.

The Covid relief, known as stimulus or economic impact payments, left some recipients with more money in the bank than the $2,000 asset limit for individuals receiving benefits through a Social Security program called Supplemental Security Income. As a result, the Social Security Administration has sent some people notices alleging they were overpaid and demanding they repay the government, according to people affected.

In some cases, the agency cut off their monthly payments to recoup the alleged overage.

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That wasn’t supposed to happen. According to the agency’s rules, the Covid payments, also known as EIPs, do not count toward the asset limit.

“[W]e are concerned by recent reporting that SSI beneficiaries have received overpayment notices because of the EIPs, even though SSA determined that EIPs would never be counted toward eligibility for SSI,” the senators wrote to Kijakazi.

The letter cited the news report by CMG and KFF Health News.

“We sent it because ... it’s not right that Social Security made a mistake, and the beneficiary shouldn’t have to pay for that mistake,” Brown, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Social Security, said Thursday in an interview with CMG’s WHIO-TV in Dayton.

“We’re not going to drop this until they back off,” Brown said, referring to the agency.

The senators asked Kijakazi about the scope of the problem, including the number of people who had benefits reduced or suspended because of Covid payments, the number who had benefits reinstated with or without an appeal, and the outcomes of appeals. They also asked what the agency has been doing about the issue.

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“As you know, SSI benefits, while modest, have a substantial impact in the lives of the people who rely on them,” the senators wrote. “Benefit suspensions and overpayment notices — regardless of the cause — can have a profound negative impact in their lives.”

“Further,” they wrote, “losing SSI eligibility risks a lengthy and bureaucratic process to restore eligibility and also risks beneficiaries’ access to Medicaid coverage.”

A spokesperson for the Social Security Administration did not respond to a request for comment about the letter and has not provided answers to prior questions on this subject.

The Covid-related Social Security clawbacks are part of a larger picture. As KFF Health News and CMG reported last month, many Americans have been struggling with demands that they repay benefits the Social Security Administration says they never should have received. The collection efforts can cover years of payments and reach tens of thousands of dollars or more.

In some cases, the alleged overpayments are the result of beneficiaries failing to comply with requirements. In others, they are the result of errors by the government.

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The same day the senators sent their letter to Kijakazi, the agency chief was being questioned on overpayments at a hearing convened by a House panel in the wake of the prior CMG and KFF reporting.

Kijakazi revealed that about 1 million people have received overpayment notices from the agency in each of the last two fiscal years.

She told the panel that Social Security employees “work assiduously to pay the right person the right amount at the right time,” and that the agency was conducting a “top-to-bottom” review of its handling of overpayments.

If we determine that a beneficiary has been paid more than they should have received, we are required by law to seek recovery of the overpayment amounts,” Kijakazi testified during the hearing.

Solving the larger problem may require legislation, Brown said, adding he would try to change the law this year “if that’s what’s necessary to get Social Security to do it right.”