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

DAYTON — Social Security is a safety net millions of Americans rely on to pay basic living expenses.

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But an I-Team investigation that aired Thursday on News Center 7 at 6 p.m. found many families are instead getting bills from the federal government asking them to pay back thousands of dollars.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) says it’s paid out more than $20 billion to people who should not have gotten that money. And now, the agency wants those payments back.

The I-Team’s lead investigative reporter, John Bedell, looked into why this is happening and how it’s impacting Ohioans.

News Center 7 has been tracking these overpayments for more than a year – trying to figure out just how many people in the Miami Valley have gotten these letters asking them to repay money they don’t have. The federal government won’t tell us. But we did hear from plenty of families stuck trying to repay hefty bills they can’t afford.

At her home in Columbus, Addie Arnold is the sole caretaker for her mentally and physically disabled adult niece, Justina Worrell.

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Arnold is retired. And the family’s Social Security checks are the only funds coming into her bank account.

“That’s basically what I live on,” Arnold told the I-Team on News Center 7 at 6 p.m. “Household needs and to pay the bills. Pretty much anything we want to do, that’s what I use it for.”

But in 2019, Arnold says something else from the Social Security Administration arrived in the mail.

“My reaction was: ‘they’re crazy,’” Arnold said of the overpayment letter she received. “When they sent me a bill saying that we owe $60,000, it’s like, ‘well, I don’t know how you’re going to get it.’”

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The SSA told Arnold they had overpaid her niece, Worrell, by more than $60,000. And now, to get that money back, the agency is withholding some of their monthly checks.

“It makes me upset because it’s multitudes of people that are being affected by this,” Arnold said.

The I-Team has talked to people across the country dealing with this overpayment outrage.

“They told me I have to owe back this much of $11,100,” Alex Hubbard said of the letter he got from the SSA in 2017.

Hubbard lives in Seattle and received Social Security benefits because he has Asperger’s syndrome. He lost them because he started working. Hubbard went over his income limit and the government now wants its money back.

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“I feel disappointed and shocked I had to owe that back – that much,” Hubbard said. “I don’t have the money. Unfortunately, I could not afford it. That will take me years to pay all that back.”

Lori Cochran lives in Pennsylvania and remembers the sticker shock she felt when she opened the letter she got from the Social Security Administration.

“I started having, like, heart palpitations,” Cochran said. “Because I’m like, ‘oh my God! $27,000? They’re going to expect me to pay that back?’”

Cochran is appealing. During that process, she’s still getting her full monthly check. But if she loses, it will take nearly 25 years to pay back the extra $27,000 she never even knew she was getting.

A different woman named Lori, who did not want us to use her last name, lives in Florida and told the I-Team a single piece of paper changed her life forever.

“I went to my mailbox and (there’s) a letter from Social Security and I opened it,” Lori said. “And it was a demand letter for $121,000. Payable in 30 days. The explanation was for overpayment.”

Lori said she had been collecting about $900 a month from Social Security for more than 15 years and could not get an answer from the SSA on why she owed them now.

Social Security Administration audits show Americans repay roughly $4.7 billion in overpayments each year. But the grand total of overpayments the agency still has not recovered, is more than $21 billion.

Records show the majority of overpayments are from Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Basically, that’s retirement-aged, low-income, or disabled people who made too much money or had too many assets.

“Beneficiaries are generally some of the lowest income people in this country,” Rebecca Vallas with The Century Foundation said. “And the agency knows full well that they don’t have some pile of cash that they’re sitting on.”

Vallas is an advocate for disability economic justice and has handled overpayment cases for years as an attorney with Legal Aid. She says even when it’s the agency’s own mistake, it still demands people pay back the money.

“The reality is you can do everything right and still get hit by a massive overpayment from Social Security,” Vallas told the I-Team.

More than a year ago, in May 2022, the I-Team began asking the SSA just how many families have been impacted by an overpayment and which states they live in. Just this week, the agency told us it does not provide that information.

Based on recent agency reports, we know it’s at least hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions of Americans.

“Overpayments have been around for as long as I’ve been around,” Angela Digeronimo said. “But what has changed is that we don’t have enough people to do the work.”

Digeronimo has worked for the Social Security Administration for 27 years. She currently works as a claims specialist for the SSA office in Woodbridge, New Jersey. She also leads the SSA employee union.

Digeronimo and another longtime SSA worker in union leadership, Jessica LaPointe, said critically low staffing levels mean it can be several years before workers re-assess people’s cases and catch overpayments – and that it can take even longer to send out the overpayment letters. By then, the dollars beneficiaries owe have ballooned to huge amounts.

“It’s our responsibility to let them know,” Digeronimo said. “But it’s also the public’s responsibility to let us know when there’s changes and they know what their reporting responsibilities are.”

But the two veteran SSA employees admit the staffing shortages can also make it harder to reach the call center to report those changes.

At their core, these uncollected overpayments are taxpayer dollars that belong to all of us.

“We take an oath to be stewards of the trust fund,” LaPointe said. “So unfortunately, we do have to collect overpayments or attempt to collect overpayments when somebody from the public has been overpaid.”

Back at her home in Columbus, Addie Arnold showed the I-Team the stack of mail correspondence with the Social Security Administration she’s kept since the overpayment letter for her niece’s benefits came in the mail in 2019. “This is my nightmare,” Arnold said as she cradled the inches-thick stack of documents bound by large binder clips. “Yes, it is.”

Arnold said she’s frustrated so many American families just like hers are now stuck with bills they can’t afford.

“Social Security should be to help people, not destroy them,” Arnold said. “You’re messing with people’s lives. If you don’t have the people to do what needs to be done to help Social Security to continue helping the people that have probably paid into Social Security all their life, then hire the people you need to keep from taking away from people that don’t have to start with.”

The Social Security Administration does give families a chance to appeal if they don’t think the overpayment is accurate or is not their fault. They can also ask for a waiver or a payment plan if the repayments will create too much of a hardship. Addie Arnold tells the I-Team she’s currently waiting on a decision for her appeal.

So, what do you do if you get an overpayment notice? Here are some additional resources from the Social Security Administration and Legal Aid of Western Ohio.

As News Center 7 reported earlier this week, Congress just announced plans to introduce a bi-partisan bill to raise the asset limit for SSI recipients for the first time in more than 30 years. Experts say this could eliminate some overpayments and make it easier for recipients to live on the money they receive. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown is co-sponsoring the plan. So far, it’s not clear when the bill could be taken up for a full vote in the U.S. House or Senate.

The Social Security Administration declined our request for an on-camera interview. But the agency did send us the following statement:

We 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.

We understand getting notice of an overpayment may be unsettling or unclear and we work with people to navigate the overpayment process. When overpayments occur, we inform people about the fact and amount of the overpayment, their right to appeal, and the options to repay or (in some cases) receive waivers for the overpayment debts. People can appeal an overpayment if they disagree with the overpayment debt decision or the overpayment amount. They also have the right to ask Social Security to waive collection of their debt if they believe the overpayment was not their fault and they cannot afford to pay it back. We do not pursue recoveries while an initial appeal or waiver is pending. We examine each waiver request to determine if the individual caused the debt and their ability to repay the debt. If we can’t waive the debt, we have flexible repayment options—including repayment of as low as $10 per month.

Our payment accuracy rates are high, yet even small error rates add up to substantial improper payment amounts, given the magnitude of the benefits we pay each year. For instance, in fiscal year 2021, we issued nearly $1.2 trillion in benefit payments. Our Social Security Retirement, Survivors, and Disability benefit payment accuracy is consistently high—less than 0.5 percent of Social Security payments are overpayments. For the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, overpayments also represent a small percentage of payments—about 7 percent—but are higher than our overall payment accuracy rate partially due to the complexity in administering income and resource limits and asset evaluations.

Nonetheless, Congress recognized that beneficiaries will be overpaid. Therefore, consistent with our stewardship responsibilities, Social Security is required by law to adjust benefits or recover debts when we establish that someone received payments to which they are not entitled and an overpayment occurs. We must maintain our responsibilities to taxpayers to be good stewards of the trust funds. Each person’s situation is unique, and we handle overpayments on a case-by-case basis. Overpayments can occur for many reasons, such as when a beneficiary does not timely report work or other changes that can affect their benefits.

Improving our business processes to serve our customers better remains a top priority. We are making better use of data and technology to prevent some overpayments. We continue to invest in improvements to make it easier for people to interact with us so we can prevent overpayments. For instance, we are developing a new electronic payroll data exchange program that will automatically use wage information to adjust payment amounts when appropriate, which will help reduce improper payments and reporting responsibilities for beneficiaries.

We are also working to streamline and simplify our waiver request form to make it easier to understand and less burdensome for people to request a debt waiver. Through proposed rulemaking, we plan to propose to simplify our rules for how a person can demonstrate eligibility for waiver of recovery of an overpayment debt.

We do not report on the number of debtors.

—   Nicole Tiggemann, Social Security Administration Press Office

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