Social Security is a lifeline for more than 70 million people in this country, ranging from retirees to people with disabilities and children. Did you know that 20% of the nation’s retirees are totally dependent on Social Security as their only source of income? In Washington State, 18% of our population receives Social Security benefits, this accounts for 90% of our residents ages 65 and older.
However, the Social Security Administrations (SSA) is a complex federal system and once you finally gain income through its complicated system – including challenging applications, long wait times, and appeals to denials, which are more common than not – it’s in no way secure. Nothing is guaranteed when it comes to Social Security yet it’s the only form of income for many people.
SSA made national news on the November 5th during a segment of 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper. Four households were featured who, much like our BLC clients, received payouts that were later considered overpayments (even 20 years later!). In their retirement years and disabled, these people were informed out of the blue that their benefits would be halted, and they were required to pay back alleged overpayments immediately. These people had already spent the money on meeting their basic needs and housing. SSA told them they were obligated to repay it EVEN if it wasn’t their fault, and if it was an error by SSA.
How does this happen? One way benefits can be overpaid is when SSA doesn’t accurately calculate a person’s benefit amount because SSA erroneously recorded information, or the information is incomplete. By the time SSA catches mistakes, years can pass, and the amounts SSA says people owe can balloon to staggering levels. However, SSA is rarely held accountable, and it will attempt to recoup the alleged overpayment amounts out of the pockets of the recipients. An overwhelming majority of recipients who are erroneously assessed with overpayments do not have access to a lawyer nor are they able to secure legal representation.
SSA overpayments impact about 1 million Social Security recipients a year, and can cause financial hardship and stress. A significant portion of the cases that our BLC attorneys take on are overpayment claims that require hours and hours of documentation, paperwork, appeals, and administrative hearings to rectify. This situation is making headlines now because $21 billion in overpayments are outstanding and unrecovered by SSA nationwide.
Experts think this wave of overpayment determinations could be a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, as SSA halted many activities during the pandemic and are just now returning to full operation – as they continue to grapple with being notoriously understaffed. Not only did instances of overpayments build up over this multi-year period, but so did the amounts due. What might have been an extra $900 / month for two months is now an extra $900 / month for 18 months or more. Imagine living on a fixed income or with a disability and receiving a notice indicating that you now owe tens of thousands of dollars you don’t have and thought you were eligible to receive? It’s devastating for our vulnerable community members that need the income and supports the most.
To learn more about this issue and the complexities of the Social Security system, check out the 60 Minutes episode by clicking here.