Social Security: Checks Could Be Clawed Back Due to Overpayments
Renee Walker said her 64-year-old mother, Rita Walker, received a letter in August from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Walker said her mother, a nurse who had been disabled by COVID-19 and dying of cancer, was receiving Social Security benefits.
Walker said the SSA letter notified her mother that the agency planned to withhold five months of her mother’s benefits—$1,214 per month, her entire income—and an additional $309 to recover an overpayment of $6,379. Walker said the SSA told her mother that she had earned too much money in 2022, which Renee Walker said was not true.
“What she needed to survive was taken away from her,” Walker said in an interview with Cox Media Group’s WPXI-TV in Pittsburgh, “and she passed away penniless.”
Rita Walker and other Social Security recipients across the country have expressed frustration and outrage after receiving a letter from SSA telling them they had been overpaid and must pay back the money.
The SSA’s move to recover money comes after the agency’s Inspector General reported that as of the end of fiscal year 2022, the SSA had $21.6 billion in overpayments that had not been collected from recipients. The SSA recovered $4.7 billion in overpayments during fiscal year 2022, according to the report. Under federal law, the SSA can reduce a recipient’s future checks or recover any money owed to the government when recipients receive payments they were not entitled to receive.
Overpayments can happen given the number of people who receive benefits, the SSA said in a press release. Social Security pays $1.4 trillion in benefits to more than 71 million people each year, Based on the Inspector General’s November 2022 report, most overpayments were from Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides monthly payments to people with disabilities and older adults who have little or no income or resources.
Many SSA recipients who received overpayments have few, if any, options for repaying the money, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington, DC-based think tank that carries out economic and social policy research. Research shows 71 percent of Social Security disability beneficiaries experience overpayments, with the median extra amount being $9,282, the institute stated in its March 2023 report. Individuals receiving SSI benefits “experience smaller but more frequent overpayments,” the report said.
In a separate report also released in March, two Urban Institute analysts wrote: “The agency often focuses on recouping payments made in error rather than on the negative impacts on beneficiaries and prevention of overpayments.”
On October 4, the SSA announced that it was putting together a team to examine the agency’s overpayment policies and procedures. In the meantime, people who do not agree that they have been overpaid or believe the amount is incorrect can file an appeal, Social Security stated in a press release. If recipients believe they shouldn’t have to pay the money back, they can request that SSA waive collection of the overpayment. There’s no time limit for filing a waiver, the agency said.
Addie Arnold is currently waiting to hear from SSA about her appeal. In an interview with the I-Team on WHIO-TV 7 in Dayton, Ohio, Arnold said she is the sole caregiver for her mentally and physically disabled adult niece, Justina Worrell. Arnold said SSI sent a letter stating that her niece had been overpaid by more than $60,000. Arnold, who is retired, said her family’s Social Security checks are the only funds they receive, and SSA is withholding some of their monthly checks.
“Social Security should be to help people, not destroy them,” Arnold told WHIO-TV 7. “You’re messing with people’s lives. If you don’t have the people to do what needs to be done to help Social Security continue helping the people who have probably paid into Social Security all their life, then hire the people you need to keep from taking away from people who don’t have to start with.”
The I-Team also interviewed Tammy Eichler, a 70-year-old retiree who appealed SSA’s demand for her to pay back $5,575 in retirement benefits. Eichler said she is still waiting for an answer and doesn’t understand what went wrong.
“At 60 days, I still didn’t hear,” she said. “So, I called Social Security again. And they said it could take six months to a year because of so many people being involved in this mess. And I said, ‘What are people supposed to do in the meantime?’”
Eichler said SSA stopped sending her Social Security checks and told her she wouldn’t get another one until June 2024.
“It’s just devastating to us,” Eichler said.
SSA overpays recipients and also underpays recipients, though on a far smaller scale.
Just as SSA overpays recipients, the agency also underpays recipients, though on a far smaller scale. For example, the agency’s Inspector General’s report found SSA had made $7.4 billion in improper payments over 12 months through September 2021, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. The improper payment included $1.4 billion in underpayments and $6 billion in overpayments.
SSA says there are many reasons why recipients are overpaid, such as when an individual does not timely report work or other changes that can affect benefits, or when someone chooses to continue receiving payments during an appeal.
Nicole Eberhardt is still searching for a reason why SSA said she was overpaid. Eberhardt told WSOC-TV in Charlotte, N.C., that she had been receiving benefits since she was a child because she has been legally blind since birth.
In July, Eberhardt said the SSA told her she had been overpaid by $9,664.50. She questioned how this could happen since her employer keeps an eye on her wages to make sure she doesn’t earn too much.
Eberhardt said her monthly benefit check did not come in August. Due to her lack of funds, Eberhardt said she and her family were evicted in September, and they had to split up.
“Now I have to pay not only Social Security back, but I have to pay my apartment complex back for the eviction,” she said.
The uproar over SSA’s overpayments has not gone unnoticed by members of the U.S. House and Senate, who are taking the agency to task for the overpayments and demanding the money back.
“The government’s got to fix this,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who chairs a Senate panel that oversees Social Security, told KFF Health News.
“It’s a management problem, and people there should be held accountable,” Brown added.
Rep. Mike Carey of Ohio, the No. 2 Republican on a House panel that oversees Social Security, called for a congressional hearing on the subject.
“We need to have a hearing,” Carey told KFF Health News. “The general sense from members is…we do have a problem, we’ve got to address it, we’ve got to fix it.”