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Under fire, Social Security chief vows “top-to-bottom” review of payment clawbacks

The head of the Social Security Administration said Wednesday the agency has been sending about 1 million people a year notices that they were paid benefits to which they were not entitled and that she has ordered a “top-to-bottom, comprehensive review” of how the agency deals with such overpayments.

Kilolo Kijakazi, the acting commissioner, testified at a congressional hearing at which House members faulted the agency for issuing billions of dollars of payments in error and then, often much later, demanding that beneficiaries pay the money back.

“Ordinary citizens are being punished for a government failure,” said Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), citing a recent investigation by KFF Health News and Cox Media Group.


Poor and disabled paying price for government error

Many of the people facing clawbacks are poor and disabled.

“Imagine living paycheck to paycheck with no savings as a result of an injury preventing you from working again and receiving a message from the federal government saying you owe them tens of thousands of dollars because of the government’s mistake, not your mistake,” Steube said.

Kijakazi said Social Security employees “work assiduously to pay the right person the right amount at the right time.”

Asked who at the agency was being held accountable for overpayment mistakes by the agency, Kijakazi said, “We are holding ourselves accountable.”

The agency had previously declined to say how many people were affected by overpayments.

At the hearing, in response to a question from Rep. Mike Carey (R-Ohio), Kijakazi said 1,028,389 people were sent overpayment notices in the 2022 fiscal year and 986,912 in fiscal 2023.

“Seems like an awful lot,” Carey said, adding that it helps explain why congressional offices are getting inundated with calls from constituents asking for help with overpayments.

The hearing by the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee was held in the wake of joint investigative reports by CMG and KFF Health News spotlighting the trauma many poor, disabled, and retired people experience when the government demands they repay benefits they have long since spent.

In many cases, years pass before the Social Security Administration determines someone has been overpaid and tries to recoup the money. In the meantime, the amount involved can balloon into tens of thousands of dollars or more.

Review team appointed

The agency announced this month it was appointing a team to review its handling of overpayments.

At the hearing, Kijakazi said the review would examine causes of overpayments, the notices it sends beneficiaries — which have been criticized as both confusing and missing important information — and how to make the process more efficient.

Kijakazi said the agency recently simplified the form beneficiaries must complete to ask that an overpayment demand be waived.

Complicated forms, outdated systems

The chair of the subcommittee, Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), said the new form is “still really complicated, and we’re putting a tremendous burden on the beneficiary.”

Kijakazi and Democrats on the panel said the agency needs more funding to do a better job and accused Republicans of trying to underfund it.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) said “years of underfunding has severely eroded the Social Security Administration’s customer service.”