I-TEAM: Some say they’ve lost Social Security benefits because of stimulus checks

DAYTON — For more than a month, News Center 7′s I-Team has talked about how the Social Security Administration (SSA) is demanding people pay back billions of dollars the agency said it shouldn’t have given them. Now, we found out some families said they lost their social because of the extra money they got during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Social Security’s own rules said those COVID-19 stimulus checks should not count against your benefits eligibility as assets or income, but since the I-Team’s initial report, we’ve heard from people across the country saying that’s what happened to them.

“I just assumed since the government put the money in, they would understand that she’s going to have extra money,” Dave Greune said.

Greune’s daughter Julia is blind and has Cerebral Palsy. He said her only income is her monthly Social Security check but during the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government deposited $3,200 in stimulus checks into her bank account. Now, the SSA froze her monthly payments and demanded thousands of dollars be returned.

“The only reason that her assets were too much was because of the stimulus payments she got during Covid,” Greune said.

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The I-Team has learned this has happened to other people, too.

Marty Helmer said he cares for his adult son with mental illness and finally got his benefits restored after months of waiting.

“Without those Covid checks, he was down two a couple hundred balance at the end of each month,” Helmer said.

Jesse Greatorex injured both of his hands in an accident in 2017, but the SSA accused the mechanic of “working over the allowable limit” for nine months in 2020, around the same time he got the Covid money. He said he can’t afford to lose his benefits.

“I wonder if this is the month I no longer have the money to pay the rent,” he said.

An I-Team investigation first revealed how hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of families have been hit with overpayment demands from Social Security, even when it was the government that made the mistake.

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Attorney Jen Burdick has helped many people fight over payments.

“Particularly if the overpayment notice came later, like the people who are getting them now, I think a lot of people aren’t thinking about what caused this,” Burdick said.

In the wake of the I-Team’s reporting, the SSA announced it’ll review its overpayment policies and procedures, but the policy for the Covid stimulus payments is clear. In 2021, the SSA directed employees not to count that money as income or assets for one year to avoid overpayments. That was later changed to “indefinitely.” The SSA updated its procedures again just two months ago in another emergency message.

“Because there have been a series of emergency messages on this topic, it seems like there has been continued confusion and probably continued problems with this over time,” Kathleen Romig, of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said.

Romig said once those Covid stimulus dollars went into a person’s account it would be impossible to prove that’s the money still sitting there years later.

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“The principle of not punishing people for receiving this assistance really makes sense,” Romig said. “But figuring out how to make that work is a difficult and maybe even impossible problem to solve.”

The SSA has declined the I-Team’s repeated requests for an interview and refused to say how many people this impacts.

Darcy Milburn, with the non-profit The Arc which works on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said the only way the SSA could stop this from happening to more people is if Congress raises what beneficiaries can have in savings well beyond the current $2,000 limit.

“It’s incredibly frustrating and it’s honestly devastating because advocates and people in the disability community knew from the very beginning that this issue would arise,” Milburn said.

In Greune’s case, the SSA has since lowered the amount it demanded back but has still not acknowledged a stimulus money error.

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“They’re still after me. Every month they send another letter, ‘Did you forget? You still owe us $6,000,’” Greune said.

To make matters worse, many states determine Medicaid eligibility based on Social Security approval, so now Greune has gotten a letter saying his daughter’s coverage needs to be reevaluated.

Following our earlier reporting, done in partnership with our Cox Media Group sister stations and KFF Health News, members of Congress called for a hearing to examine many of these issues.

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