COVID-19 stimulus checks are triggering social security overpayments across the country

PITTSBURGH — Channel 11 has new developments in our investigation into Social Security overpayments. We’ve been telling you for more than a month how Social Security has been demanding people pay back billions of dollars the agency says it shouldn’t have given them. Now, we’ve learned some families say they’ve lost their Social Security because of money they got as extra help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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

“I just assumed since the government put the money in, they would understand that she’s going to have extra money,” Dave Greune tells 11 Investigates.

Dave Greune says his adult daughter Julia’s only income is her monthly social security check. Julia is blind and has cerebral palsy. During the pandemic, $3,200 in stimulus checks, or economic impact payments, were deposited into her bank account. Now, the Social Security Administration has frozen her monthly payments and is demanding 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.

In our report last month. 11 Investigates 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 who made the mistake.

Attorney Jen Burdick has helped countless people fight overpayments. She works for Community Legal Services for Philadelphia.

“The government gave this money to them with one hand, they should not be trying to take it back with the other,” Jen Burdick says. “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.”

In the wake of our reporting, the Social Security Administration announced it will review its overpayment procedures and policies. That said, the policy for COVID stimulus payments is clear. In 2021, the Social Security Administration directed employees not to count that money as income or assets for one year to avoid overpayments. Later that was changed to indefinitely. The Social Security Administration just updated its procedures again two months ago, in another emergency message.

Kathleen Roming, at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, says once those COVID-19 stimulus dollars went into a person’s account, and mixed in with other money, it would be impossible to prove that’s the money still sitting there years later.

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

The Social Security Administration has declined our repeated requests for an interview and refused to say how many people have been hit with overpayments.

Marty Helmer cares for his adult son with disabilities.

“It was angst, lots of it,” Helmer tells 11 Investigates.

He finally got his benefits restored after months of fighting.

“Without those COVID-10 checks, he was down to, you know, a couple hundred balance at the end of each month,” Helmer added.

Then there’s Rowena Sullivan. She testified at Monday’s special field hearing in PA for the Senate Committee on Aging. Sullivan’s daughter, Hannah, has cerebral palsy, cognitive impairment and hearing loss. SSI benefits are her lifeline.

“There are times she has no control over what might put her over the limit, such as when she received a COVID-19 stimulus check or she received a tax refund, both of which triggered an overpayment,” Rowena Sullivan testified.

An accident injured both of Jesse Greatorex’s hands in 2017, but the Social Security Administration accused the mechanic of “working over the allowable limit” for nine months in 2020, around the same time he got the COVID money. 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,” Greatorex said.

Darcy Milburn is with the ARC, a non-profit working on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She says the only way the Social Security Administration could stop this from happening to more people is if Congress raises what beneficiaries can have in savings well beyond the current 2000-dollar limit.

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

In Greune’s case, Social Security initially demanded Julia repay more than double the amount she got in stimulus money, about $7300, for months of Social Security benefits the agency now thinks she wasn’t entitled to receive. The SSA has since lowered that amount a bit, but it hasn’t acknowledged a stimulus-money error.

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

To make matters worse, many states determine Medicaid eligibility based on Social Security approval, so Dave has received a letter saying Julia’s coverage needs to be re-evaluated.

Following our earlier reporting, members of Congress called for a hearing to examine many of these issues including overpayments. That’s currently scheduled for Wednesday afternoon. 11 Investigates will be watching and following this story closely.

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