9 Investigates: Social Security overpays billions to families then demands money back

CHARLOTTE — Millions of Americans are currently living on a fixed income, and their biggest safety net to pay basic living expenses is Social Security.

A Channel 9 investigation found that families across the country are getting bills from the federal government.

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), more than $20 billion was given out to Americans who should not have received that money; now the agency wants it back.

In most cases, the recipient had no idea that their payments were wrong, and in some cases, it was the government’s mistake. Now, the SSA is asking them to pay back thousands, sometimes even tens of thousands, in an attempt to fix the error.

Matt and Kristin Cooper have spent the last five years working hard to fix their financial situation for themselves and their two young children.

“It’s opening up wounds that we had already healed,” Kristen Cooper told our sister station WSB-TV. “And then here we are now having to fight them again.”

“It’s hard to actually heal and get better when you have to keep revisiting this. The worst day of your life,” Matt Cooper said.

Matt Cooper is a former Covington, Georgia police officer. About five years ago, he was shot between the eyes while on duty responding to a shoplifting call. Following his injury, Social Security payments for Matt and his kids, coupled with workers’ compensation, are now major factors in the family’s monthly budget.

“Every decision that we made for our family was based on the benefits that we were supposed to receive,” Kristen Cooper said.

Recently, the couple was sent a surprise letter from the SSA demanding the Cooper family pay back $30,000. According to Kristen, an employee at her local SSA office told her the agency failed to correctly factor in Matt’s workers’ compensation in its calculation.

In addition to the repayment, monthly payouts to the couple’s children have been cut, dropping from $900 to $150.

“We had submitted all the appropriate documentation with Matt and the children, and she was in agreement that, yes, we had done everything correctly,” Kristen said. “But sometimes their system just doesn’t pick up on it until later.”

Rebecca Vallas has been handling overpayment investigations for years as an attorney with Legal Aid. She said that even in cases where the agency is at fault, they still demand that money back.

“The reality is you can do everything right and still get hit by a massive overpayment from Social Security,” Vallas said. “It’s happening every single day to people all around us across this country.”

For over a year, Channel 9 has been reaching out and asking the SSA how many people have been overpaid. Just this week, the agency said it would not release that information, but we found agency audits that show at least hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—have been impacted by this mistake.

Angela Digeronimo, a former Social Security worker and employee union leader, says overpayments have been happening for years and are mainly caused by critically low staffing levels. The lack of personnel also means it can be multiple years before workers can reassess cases, catch overpayments, and send notice; during that time, the amount people owe continues to grow.

“It’s our responsibility to let them know,” Digeronimo said. “But it’s also the public’s responsibility to let us know when there are changes and they know what their reporting responsibilities are.”

Low staffing can also mean that some who try to report a change in their income or disability can’t get through to SSA call centers. At the end of the day, Social Security views that money as taxpayer dollars that belong to all of us.

“We take an oath to be stewards of the trust fund,” Jessica LaPointe, another former Social Security worker and employee union leader, said. “So unfortunately, we do have to collect overpayments or attempt to collect overpayments when somebody from the public has been overpaid.”

The SSA says families are allowed to appeal their overpayment bills if they believe it’s an error or they weren’t at fault. If the amount creates too much hardship, recipients can also ask for a waiver or payment plan.

The Cooper family’s appeal was already denied; they’re not hoping for a waiver.

“Eight years in the Army, I did two tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to come home to be a police officer,” Matt Cooper said. “I just feel like I’m doing so much for other people that now it’s time for me to get help. And I’m just, it’s just an uphill battle constantly. It’s hard to heal.”

The SSA declined Channel 9′s request for an interview, but they did provide this 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 a waiver of recovery of an overpayment debt. We do not report on the number of debtors.”

This investigation is a collaboration between Channel 9 and our sister stations, along with KFF Health News.

(WATCH BELOW: Cleveland County deputy couldn’t enter Social Security office with firearm, sheriff says)

Madison Carter

Madison Carter, wsoctv.com

Madison is an investigative reporter and anchor for Channel 9.

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