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Social Security’s $20 billion error raises questions in Congress

Members of Congress are demanding answers after it was revealed the Social Security Administration is trying to claw back $20 billion in overpayments.

The SSA regained $4.7 billion of overpayments during the 2022 fiscal year, but ended the year with $21.6 billion still outstanding, according to a report by agency’s inspector general.

Social Security benefits are paid to people who have retired, people who are disabled and the survivors of workers who have died. For many, the payments make up the bulk of their income and some recipients have told Newsweek of their fears after being sent letters from the SSA asking for tens of thousands of dollars to be paid back with little notice. One man said he became homeless after the agency sent him a demand for $67,000.

Now, several lawmakers are calling for congressional hearings on the overpayments and for the SSA to stop seeking them back.

Rep. Mike Carey, an Ohio Republican on the House Subcommittee on Social Security, has called for a hearing.

“Seniors and disabled Americans on a fixed income shouldn’t be penalized for bureaucratic mistakes on the part of the Social Security Administration,” Carey said in a statement to Newsweek.

“The Social Security Administration has known about this problem for years, we need answers to why it hasn’t been solved yet.”

Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican on the Committee on Aging, questioned how the agency allowed overpayments to balloon to more than $20 billion.

“Is somebody going to be held accountable at the federal level for, you know, messing this up?” Scott said to Cox Media Group.

Newsweek has contacted the Social Security Administration for further comment via email.

In September, New York Republican Rep. Marc Molinaro contacted the acting commissioner of the SSA, calling on the agency to immediately stop trying to claw back overpayments and update its system to prevent future issues.

“The Social Security Administration screwed up, and now they’re demanding that seniors pay for the administration’s mistakes,” Molinaro said in a statement.

“Social Security serves as the primary source of income for thousands of recipients in Upstate New York. Most victims will have no way of ever paying Social Security back. The Social Security Administration needs to stop aggressive prosecutions of seniors and focus on fixing their systems.”

Meanwhile, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Louisiana Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican, have introduced bipartisan legislation to reform the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

The Savings Penalty Elimination Act aims to raise asset caps to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for married couples, and index them to inflation moving forward. The current caps, which have not been changed since 1984, are $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for married couples.

“The government shouldn’t punish seniors and Ohioans with disabilities who do the right thing and save money,” Brown said. “It’s long past time we end these out-of-date government restrictions and allow Americans on SSI to save for emergencies and for their futures without putting the benefits they rely on to live at risk.”

A spokesperson fort he SSA previously told Newsweek that “less than 0.5 percent of Social Security payments are overpayments.”

They said the agency “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,” the spokesperson continued.

They added: “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.”

Update 10/3/23, 10:30 a.m. ET: This article has been updated with comment from Rep. Carey.

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