Recipients of Social Security payments have been left shocked and worried by letters demanding they pay back vast sums with only 30 days’ notice, Newsweek has learned.
Payback demands, some in the tens of thousands, have been issued to beneficiaries by the Social Security Agency. Many of these people are vulnerable or have a disability and have been asked to pay back large sums due to the service—admittedly—accidentally paying them too much money.
During the 2022 fiscal year, the SSA regained $4.7 billion of overpayments, while another $21.6 billion remained outstanding, according to a report by SSA’s inspector general.
Social Security payments are made for a variety of reasons. SSA benefits are paid based on your earnings record if you are aged 62 or older or if you are a person with a disability and have enough work credits. For many people who are unable to work or are retired, payments make up the bulk of the money they live off. Around 66 million Americans receive benefits as of June 2022, according to the SSA.
But some have found themselves in remarkably difficult circumstances, with repayment notices issued asking for owed money—which is in some cases disputed—to be repaid within 30 days. Issues with staffing and long waiting times are all causing even further stress to some of America’s most vulnerable people.
One man, a disabled veteran with bipolar disorder, told Newsweek he had received a letter from the SSA requesting he pay back $67,000. He said the SSA told him during a work review three years ago that there were no issues with his payments, but it transpired he had been overpaid.
He has filed an appeal and waiver for the debt and has tried to get legal advice from SSA lawyers, who have not helped him because “it is not a new case.” He also said he could not afford a private lawyer.
“It’s a lot to deal with on your own,” he said, saying that it’s a “simple mistake they won’t fix.”
Another man from Malden, Missouri, said he lost his car and became homeless after the SSA also sent him a demand for $67,000.
“I am so sad losing everything at 68 years old,” he told Newsweek. “Thank God for food stamps.”
A college student who works full-time told Newsweek she had received a letter asking that $27,000 be paid back. She says she notified the SSA “multiple times” in 2021 after a period of not working that she had returned to employment.
“I kept being told I did not have to do anything more on my end. I would receive paperwork asking about my return to work and how much I am making; all to no avail. They kept sending me payments, but they also increased that pay twice,” she said.
She has raised concerns over processes and staffing at the government agency.
“I feel that those of us affected by overpayments did nothing wrong; why didn’t the SSA already have systems in place to help determine whether payments needed adjusting instead of now stating they don’t have enough staff?
“From my standpoint, being employed in health care, if the organization I work for came out and said that a considerable issue that arose was due to low staffing, well then the government would be digging in. It’s not right that myself and a significant amount of other citizens are now being demanded to pay back what the SSA admits they made in error.”
Another woman from West Seneca, New York, says her benefits were stopped after repayment demands went to her old address.
“I went to my bank expecting direct deposit on the second Wednesday of the month,” she told Newsweek, where she discovered her balance was $0. She says she changed her address via mail and online, but notices were still sent to an address she has not lived at for two years. She went to her local Social Security office and submitted a waiver form. She said that staff at the office were “helpful.”
According to a report published in 2022 by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank dedicated to researching and developing policies that address the needs of low-income families, staffing levels within the SSA have decreased significantly, reaching their lowest point in 25 years after approximately 4,000 employees departed during the coronavirus pandemic.
In a previous statement to Newsweek, an SSA spokesperson said: “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.”
They added that “less than 0.5 percent of Social Security payments are overpayments.”
A woman from New Hampshire provided Newsweek with SSA overpayment letters dating back to 2016. They show that her benefits were cut, in one instance to $0 for a month due to being paid too much money previously. It also requested that if she “cannot refund” the full amount within the 30-day payment terms, she is required to send a partial payment and a letter detailing why, including a plan for how she will reimburse the SSA.
Another person, who has Lupus and works part-time earning just over $8 an hour, says it took the SSA seven years to figure out she had overpaid. She received a bill for just under $35,000 in October 2022. One of the ways SSA can collect debt is by cutting monthly benefits, with an SSA policy on overpayments stipulating: “We’ll stop collection of the overpayment until we make a decision on your request for an appeal or waiver.”
But the woman says her benefits were stopped “without notice.” She claims the SSA told her that because she can work she is “no longer disabled,” leaving her feeling confused. She told Newsweek she has a hearing date in November regarding the amount she owes.
In a previous statement to Newsweek, a spokesperson for the SSA said: “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.”
Newsweek reached out to the Social Security Agency for an updated comment.
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