Major changes in how Social Security overpayments are handled, following 11 Investigates reporting

WASHINGTON — A major update to 11 Investigates reporting along with our Cox Media Group sister stations and KFF Health News on the billions of dollars in Social Security overpayments the federal government is now trying to force people to pay back.

The new Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Martin O’Malley, is now taking action, following our reporting, announcing significant changes in how the agency handles overpayments.

>> Local families told they owe thousands they don’t have after Social Security overpayments

Commissioner Martin O’Malley calls this a very tough time in the agency’s history.  He says there are more beneficiaries than ever, yet staffing is at a 27-year low, making the agency that’s meant to serve those most in need a customer service nightmare.

>> Lawmakers calling for congressional hearings after 11 Investigates social security overpayments

“We are no longer going to have that clawback cruelty of intercepting 100% of a payment if people do not respond to our notice,” Commissioner O’Malley said during a Senate Committee on Aging hearing.

Starting Monday, March 25, Commissioner O’Malley announced the Social Security Administration will instead:

  • Withhold 10% of monthly payments, not eliminate monthly checks to recoup the overpayment debt.

And in the next several months, the SSA will work to:

  • Put the burden of proof for determining who is at fault for an overpayment on the agency, not the beneficiary
  • Allow beneficiaries to pay back a debt over five years instead of three
  • Make it easier for beneficiaries to apply for a waiver if they don’t believe the overpayment was their fault

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and the Chair of the Senate Committee on Aging, says Congress must fund the critical lifeline that is Social Security, which is currently failing many of the people it serves.

>> Some current and retired public employees hit hard by Social Security overpayments

“It has to be remedied, not just for those in Pennsylvania and around the country who have been affected,” Casey told 11 Investigates. “We’ve got to make sure this never happens again.”

Commissioner O’Malley says he created a new leadership team, which is now working to lower the average 38-minute hold time for the customer service hotline and get folks with disabilities a decision on their application for benefits faster than the current eight-month average.

“We are in a customer service crisis,” Commissioner O’Malley added.

“We’re going to be taking a further look at that to see if there aren’t other steps we can take,” Casey said. “But I think it’s refreshing that the Commissioner is addressing the problem and trying to expedite the implementation of those changes.”

Another big change Commissioner O’Malley is considering is that he says he wants to limit how many years the agency can look back to catch overpayments and collect repayment.

One important thing to keep in mind with these changes is that they won’t be automatic for people who are already dealing with an overpayment.  If your benefits have already been reduced or stopped, you’ll likely have to contact the agency to re-negotiate new terms.

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