Investigates

Social Security Administration could have new commissioner in light of overpayments, low staffing

WASHINGTON — The Social Security Administration is one step closer to having a new leader. The Senate Finance Committee is considering President Joe Biden’s nominee for commissioner in former Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley.

This confirmation hearing comes at a time when the Social Security Administration is at a tipping point. The agency is crippled by understaffing, low morale and as 11 Investigates has reported, billions of dollars in overpayments the government is now trying to claw back. If confirmed, O’Malley will have a huge task on his hands to get the agency back on track.

We’ve told you how our investigation across our sister stations in collaboration with KFF Health News exposed billions of dollars in overpayments and efforts by the Social Security Administration (SSA) to claw the money back.

“I’ve read those stories about people in danger of losing their homes or other financial catastrophes, it’s heartbreaking,” O’Malley said during Thursday’s Senate Finance Committee hearing for his confirmation.

O’Malley was asked directly about the $21 billion in overpayments the agency made in error and now wants back - something Channel 11 has been investigating for months.

“Overpayments push even deeper into poverty and hardship, which is directly counterproductive to the goals of the program,” Senator Bob Menendez (D- NJ) said.

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey, along with Senators Wyden and Brown sent this letter to the agency last month, asking why these overpayments are happening.

“The SSA has noted, the leading cause is the SSI asset limit which has not been updated since 1984,” Sen. Brown (D-Oh) said. “Am I correct this outdated asset limit is in fact the leading cause of overpayments?”

“It’s a leading cause and it’s a huge administrative burden,” O’Malley responded during the confirmation hearing.

COVID-19 stimulus checks have even been bumping some folks above the asset limit, triggering overpayment notices or a loss of SSI benefits.

“These are people who received a COVID-19 payment and therefore had their SSI benefits reduced - we need to correct that,” Sen. Casey told us after the hearing.

Senators Wyden, Brown and Cassidy introduced Bipartisan legislation called the ‘SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act’ to raise that asset limit, so folks are able to save for an emergency.

“There seems to be a widespread belief that bicameral and bipartisan leadership of yours would absolutely be the right thing to do for recipients,” O’Malley said to Sen. Brown. “The right policy and it would also reduce the huge administrative burden.”

“I think he’s going to be confirmed,” Sen. Casey said. “I’ll be surprised if he’s not. We can work more directly with him to correct this problem to reinstate those benefits.”

Senator Casey called O’Malley a skilled and capable manager who will lead the agency and invest in its future.

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