FIRST ON FOX: Lawmakers want to know why the Social Security Administration has reportedly erroneously overpaid benefits to millions of Americans and then hit beneficiaries with demands for repayment to the tune of thousands of dollars.
A bipartisan letter sent by House members in the Ohio delegation presses Dr. Kilolo Kijakazi, the acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), for answers on its efforts to claw back overpayments from Americans, many of whom did nothing wrong. Those affected are elderly or disabled people on a fixed income who may have their benefits frozen or cut until their debt is paid off.
Rep. Mike Carey, R-Ohio, one of the lead authors, told Fox News Digital that for nearly a decade the Social Security Administration has hounded Americans impacted by errors made by the government as if they committed fraud on their end.
“Seniors and disabled Americans living on fixed incomes are not criminals, and they don’t deserve to be treated like criminals by the federal government over a mistake — and I can’t stress this enough — that is not their fault, but rather the result of a bureaucratic mistake on the part of the federal government,” Carey said.
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He shared that an Ohio constituent received a letter from the SSA in December 2021 saying their retiree benefits were miscalculated.
“That constituent not only started receiving more money monthly, but the Social Security Administration sent them a check to cover what was retroactively owed through 2017,” said Carey. “Then in August of this year, that constituent received a letter from the Social Security Administration saying that the initial miscalculation of their benefits was wrong. This constituent was told they now owed the Social Security Administration more than $7,500 in overpaid benefits, and they had only 30 days to pay it off.”
Lawmakers say that more than one million Americans are contacted each year about Social Security funds disbursed by mistake. In Congressional testimony in November, SSA Acting Commissioner Kijakazi said 986,912 Americans were reached with clawback letters in fiscal year 2023.
However, a CBS “60 Minutes” report based on a Freedom of Information Act request to the SSA found that Kijakazi understated the problem. The report said more than 2 million Americans annually are informed their Social Security checks were too big — more than two times the number Kijakazi told Congress. Beneficiaries have found out they owe the government tens of thousands of dollars, CBS reported, and are given a short window, often just 30 days, to pay it all back.
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Those impacted include the retired, disabled and people who rely on Social Security as their sole source of income.
“Older and disabled Americans who have done everything correctly when filing for Social Security benefits but received overpayments through no fault of their own should not be penalized for erroneous mistakes made by the Social Security Administration,” said Rep. Emilia Sykes, D-Ohio, the lead Democrat on the letter.
“Our seniors rely on these payments to pay their bills and put food on the table — they can’t afford for the SSA to be making life-altering errors. This letter seeks to hold the SSA accountable and ensure all seniors receive the correct payments they deserve,” she said.
A spokesperson for Sykes said one of her elderly constituents recently reached out about an overpayment letter from SSA and that her office intervened to get the woman a refund.
In a statement to FOX Business, SSA spokeswoman Nicole Tiggemann said the administration does not have an exact figure for how many of the 67 million Americans who receive Social Security are impacted by overpayments.
“Our overpayment systems were not designed to easily determine this information. As part of the review directed by the Acting Commissioner, we are looking at how best to inform the Agency, the public, and Congress about this workload,” Tiggemann said.
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The Social Security Administration acknowledges that overpayment notices can be “unsettling” for beneficiaries. When a mistaken disbursement is detected, “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 of the debt,” she explained.
“People have the right to appeal the overpayment decision or the amount. They can also ask Social Security to waive collection of the overpayment, if they believe it was not their fault and can’t afford to pay it back. We do not pursue recoveries while an initial appeal or waiver is pending,” Tiggemann said.
SSA reviews overpayments on a “case-by-case” basis and provides beneficiaries with “flexible repayment options” as low as $10 per month, Tiggemann added. She noted that overpayments represent only “one half of one percent” of the total $1.4 trillion in benefits Social Security will pay this year, an “extremely low percentage.”
While SSA has discretion to waive recovery of an overpayment if it is “against equity and good conscience,” lawmakers expressed concern that beneficiaries who spoke to “60 Minutes” were unable to obtain a waiver.
“We have concerns that each of the beneficiaries who were interviewed for the 60 Minutes segment had requested an overpayment waiver from the SSA and were either continuing to appeal or had been paying the debts,” the letter states. “However, after the 60 Minutes segment aired, all the debts for each of the recipients were waived. The system for who does and does not receive a waiver should not be based on national media coverage of their claims.”
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The Social Security Administration initiated a comprehensive review of its overpayment process on Oct. 4, 2023. Tiggemann told FOX Business that the review is currently in its fact-finding stage and could not give a time frame for its completion.
“We will examine our policies and procedures — including our regulations — to determine where administrative updates to the overpayment recovery and waiver process may reduce the complexity and burden for the people we serve,” she said.