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Social Security Chief apologizes to Congress for misleading testimony on overpayments

WASHINGTON — The head of the Social Security Administration has sent a letter of apology to members of Congress about testimony in which she understated the extent of the agency’s overpayments to beneficiaries.

“I want to apologize for any confusion or misunderstanding during the October hearing,” acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi wrote in a letter dated Dec. 11.

Kijakazi sent the letter days after KFF Health News and Cox Media Group reported that the agency has been demanding money back from more than 2 million people a year — more than twice as many as Kijakazi disclosed to a House panel at an Oct. 18 hearing.

The report was based on a Social Security document the news organizations obtained through a records request under the Freedom of Information Act.

“In my effort to be responsive to Committee questions on overpayment numbers, I provided a preliminary, unvetted and partial answer,” Kijakazi said in her apology letter.

“My goal — and SSA’s goal — is always to provide Congress with the most complete, accurate, and responsive information possible,” Kijakazi said. “We did not do that in this case and will use this experience to improve our communications with Congress going forward.”

In an interview before she sent the apology, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) said Kijakazi “wasn’t being completely upfront” at the hearing, and he wondered whether the agency had “intentionally deflated the numbers.”

Meanwhile, in a Dec. 12 interview, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said the agency had damaged its credibility by “not telling the truth.”

The hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security focused on the agency’s record of sending out billions of dollars of benefit payments that it later concludes it never should have paid — and then, sometimes years later, demanding the recipients pay the money back.

The unexpected bills, which can total tens of thousands of dollars or more, can be devastating for the recipients. Many are disabled and struggling to get by on minimal incomes.

Until the hearing, the agency had not disclosed the number of people affected, making it harder for policymakers to assess the seriousness of the problem and what to do about it.

At the hearing, Rep. Mike Carey (R-Ohio) asked how many people a year are receiving overpayment notices.

Reading from a piece of paper, Kijakazi gave two precise numbers: 1,028,389 for the 2022 fiscal year and 986,912 for the 2023 fiscal year. Under further questioning, she repeated the numbers. She also said they were “under Social Security” and “for Social Security.”

After the hearing, KFF Health News and Cox Media Group sent the Social Security press office several emails over a period of weeks asking for clarification: Did the numbers Kijakazi gave at the hearing represent all programs administered by the Social Security Administration, or just a subset?

SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann did not give a direct answer.

The news organizations filed the FOIA request for a copy of the document from which Kijakazi read the numbers at the hearing. The document showed that Kijakazi did not tell House members the whole story.

She read numbers that included two benefit programs, but she repeatedly omitted the larger numbers for a third program, which were also listed on the piece of paper, directly below the numbers she read.

She left out more than a million people a year.

More than seven weeks passed before she sent Congress the apology.

“We should have followed up with additional context following the hearing,” she said in her letter. “I take seriously the commitment that all Federal officials make to provide the Congress with accurate information, and I very much regret not contacting you with more information right away.”

KFF Health News and Cox Media Group obtained a copy of the letter addressed to Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), chair of the Ways and Means’ Subcommittee on Social Security, and a copy sent to a Democratic member of the committee.

Asked which members of Congress were sent the letter, Tiggemann said in an email, “The correspondence was between Acting Commissioner Kijakazi and members of the committee.”

Tiggemann did not respond to a request for an interview with Kijakazi.

In her letter, Kijakazi essentially disavowed the numbers she gave the committee. She said the agency is trying to make sure it has “the right data to make meaningful improvements.”

“We are committed to sharing this data with the Committee and the public,” she wrote, “as soon as it is fully vetted.”

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