PITTSBURGH — It’s a safety net millions of Americans rely on to pay basic living expenses, but 11 Investigates found many families are instead getting bills from the federal government, asking them to pay back thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars. The Social Security Administration says it paid out more than $20 billion to people who should not have received that money, and now the agency wants it back.
We’ve been tracking these overpayments for more than a year, trying to figure out just how many people in Western Pennsylvania have gotten these letters asking them to repay money they don’t have. So far, the federal government has refused to tell us, but we did hear from folks stuck trying to repay hefty bills they can’t afford. People like Lori Cochran, who learned she owes $27,000!
“When I was reading it for the first time, I was having heart palpitations because I was like oh my gosh, $27,000? They’re going to expect me to pay that back?”
$27,000 is more money than Lori Cochran has had in her account in the last decade. Every month, since she was in her 20s, she’s gotten a social security check. The $914 check covered her modest lot rent, utilities and everyday expenses.
“I know a lot of people look down on people that are on social security,” Lori tells 11 Investigates. “But that’s not a choice that people have to go on social security. It’s just a necessity.”
Despite earning two college degrees, Lori is unable to work because multiple sclerosis limits the use of her hands.
“I try to take a little bit each month and put it away for emergencies,” she said.
Lori said she says she was always careful to keep her assets below the $ 2,000 limit the Social Security Administration requires. Then she got a letter saying she owed $27,000 because the agency had been paying her too much for over two years.
“By the time they do catch it, people are already in the dust,” Lori said. “They actually did start taking $91.40 out of my check each month, so I appealed it.”
During the appeal, Lori is still getting her full check, but if she loses, it will take more than 295 months - that’s nearly 25 years - to pay back the extra $27,000 she never even knew she was getting!
Rebecca Vallas 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 the money back.
“The reality is you can do everything right and still get hit by a massive overpayment from social security,” Vallas tells 11 Investigates. “Beneficiaries are generally some of the lowest income people in this country, and the agency knows full well that they don’t have some pile of cash that they’re sitting on.”
Records show the majority of the overpayments are from supplemental security income - or SSI - basically retirement-aged, low-income and/or disabled people who exceeded the income or asset limits -- like Lori did.
“They told me it was because of the life insurance policy that I took over from my mom that she had on me,” Lori added. “I wasn’t aware that I was doing anything wrong.”
Audit records show the Social Security Administration collects between four and five billion dollars in overpayments each year, but, it still has a grand total of $21 billion dollars in overpayments it hasn’t recovered.
Jessica LaPointe is a union representative for Social Security Administration employees.
“We take an oath to be stewards of the trust fund,” Jessica LaPointe says. “So unfortunately, we do have to collect overpayments or attempt to collect overpayments when somebody from the public has been overpaid.”
Union representatives for Social Security Administration employees say the agency is critically understaffed.
“I’m lucky if I touch an overpayment case once a month,” LaPointe added. “We are constantly having to shift our priorities on public intake.”
And the number of people entering the Social Security system is at an all-time high. Overpayments can take years to catch. Meanwhile, the dollar amounts keep growing.
“It’s our responsibility to let them know. But it’s also the public’s responsibility to let us know when there are changes and they know what their reporting responsibilities are,” Angela Digeronimo added.
But the social security rules can be confusing, and some mistakes are honest ones.
“The average member of the public receiving the benefits, while they’re expected to understand the rules, often struggle to understand what they’re supposed to report,” LaPointe adds.
Plus, staffing shortages make it harder for a beneficiary to get through to the call center when they do want to report a change.
In Orlando, a woman got a letter saying she owed $121,000! She says she had to sell her house and her car. She ultimately won her appeal after 6 years!
In Seattle, this man with Aspergers got a letter saying he owed over $11,000.
“I don’t have the money,” Alexander Hubbard tells our sister station, KIRO. “It will take me years to pay back.”
Lori Cochran has been in the social security system for 30 years and says without her full check, it will be impossible to make ends meet for the rest of her life.
We asked if she feels some people will never be able to pay back all the money. She says, “I’m one of them.”
Families can appeal if they don’t think the overpayment is accurate, or it wasn’t their mistake. They can ask for a waiver or a payment plan if the repayments will create too much of a hardship.
The Social Security Administration declined our request for an interview, but sent 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.”
This investigation is a collaboration between 11 News and our sister stations in seven states, along with KFF Health News.
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