Social Security Clawbacks Hit a Million More People Than Agency Chief Told Congress

The Social Security Administration has demanded money back from more than 2 million people a year — more than twice as many people as the head of the agency disclosed at an October congressional hearing.

That’s according to a document KFF Health News and Cox Media Group obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration Kilolo Kijakazi read aloud from the document during the hearing but repeatedly left out an entire category of beneficiaries displayed on the paper as well.

The document indicates the fallout from Social Security overpayments and clawbacks is much wider than Kijakazi acknowledged under direct questioning from a House Ways and Means subcommittee that oversees the federal agency.

In a statement for this article, SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann described the numbers of people Kijakazi provided in her testimony and those she left out as “unverified.”

“We cannot confirm the accuracy of the information, and we have informed the committee,” Tiggemann said.

The numbers “were gathered quickly,” the spokesperson said. Social Security systems “were not designed to easily determine this information,” she said.

After the October hearing, KFF Health News and Cox Media Group sent Tiggemann several emails asking her to clarify whether the annual numbers Kijakazi gave to Congress included all Social Security programs or just a subset. She would not say.

For answers, the news organizations several weeks ago filed a FOIA request.

Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.), a member of the subcommittee, said in an interview that he wondered if the agency “intentionally deflated the numbers to not make it look as bad as it is.”

“Maybe we should have her come back in for another hearing, put her under oath,” and ask her “why she wasn’t being completely upfront about the numbers,” Steube said.

Steube said that, when he heard Kijakazi’s testimony, he thought she was giving the subcommittee the complete numbers.

At issue is the scope of a problem that has terrified many Social Security beneficiaries and plunged them into financial distress.

As KFF Health News and Cox Media Group television stations jointly reported in September, the government has been trying to recover billions of dollars from beneficiaries it says it overpaid. In many cases, the overpayments were the government’s fault.

But, even in cases where the beneficiary failed to comply with requirements, years can pass before the government catches the mistake and sends a notice demanding repayment, often within 30 days. In the meantime, the amount the beneficiary owes the government can grow to tens of thousands of dollars or more — far more than people living month to month could likely repay.

The people affected may be retired, disabled, or struggling to get by on only minimal income.

The number of people experiencing overpayments is important to know because overpayments can cause a lot of harm, said Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, who worked in research at the Social Security Administration and has since spent 20 years in the field of Social Security policy.

“It should be a very high priority at the agency to produce more reliable numbers,” Romig said.

A portrait of Kathleen Romig.
Kathleen Romig is director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.(Cox Media Group)

The Social Security Administration has long quantified overpayments in dollars rather than numbers of people affected. For example, the agency’s latest annual financial report says it recovered more than $4.9 billion in overpayments in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 and ended that period with a cumulative uncollected overpayment balance of $23 billion.

In September, SSA’s Tiggemann said, “We do not report on the number of debtors.”

In subsequent interviews with the news organizations, some lawmakers said the agency owed the public that information. “If they’re not telling you, I can assure you that’s a question that I’m going to ask in a hearing,” said Rep. Mike Carey of Ohio, the No. 2 Republican on the subcommittee.

At an Oct. 18 hearing, Carey brought up the number of debtors and told Kijakazi, “I think it’s something that we really need to get to the bottom of.”

Then he asked, “Do we have a number of how many people have been impacted by these overpayments?”

“We do,” Kijakazi replied. “And I’m, I looked at that before I came. I’m, I’m sorry. I’m not thinking of the number right now. But I can provide that.”

Carey pressed further.

“How many people are receiving overpayment notices in a year?” he asked.

At that point, Tom Klouda, a deputy SSA commissioner, got up from his seat behind Kijakazi and handed her a piece of paper.

Reading from the page, she gave two precise numbers: 1,028,389 for the 2022 fiscal year and 986,912 for the 2023 fiscal year.

When Carey asked if 986,912 “individuals were getting these letters in the mail saying that there was an overpayment and that they needed to contact you guys and set up a payment plan,” Kijakazi said, “That’s right.”

“Seems like an awful lot,” Carey said.

Under further questioning from Carey, Kijakazi repeated the numbers. She said they were “under Social Security” and “for Social Security.”

Subsequently, the agency declined to clarify what Kijakazi meant by that. Replying to a series of emails, Tiggemann would not say whether the numbers included all the Social Security programs.

Instead, she implied the agency didn’t know.

“Again, our overpayment systems were not designed to easily determine the information you’re requesting,” she wrote on Nov. 29.

The document obtained via FOIA shows that the numbers Kijakazi gave at the hearing covered only two of the three Social Security benefit programs. They did not cover Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which provides financial support for people who have little or no income or assets and are blind, otherwise disabled, or at least 65 years old.

On the paper that the deputy commissioner handed Kijakazi, overpayment counts for SSI appeared directly below the numbers she read aloud, and they were bigger: 1,118,648 people in fiscal 2022 and 1,189,642 in fiscal 2023.

The document is titled in part, “Overpayment Basic Facts.”

In the document, the numbers Kijakazi read at the hearing, which round to about 1 million people a year, are labeled “T2.” Title II of the Social Security Act covers two programs: Disability Insurance, or DI, and Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, or OASI.

The numbers Kijakazi omitted are labeled “T16.” Title XVI of the Social Security Act covers SSI.

Within the Social Security Administration, personnel use the term T16 when referring to SSI and T2 when referring to OASI and DI combined, said Romig, the former agency researcher.

It’s possible that some people who received overpayment notices through SSI also received notices through the other programs, leading to overlap between the numbers Kijakazi read at the hearing and those she didn’t provide, Romig said.

A photo of Congressman Mike Carey sitting during a House hearing.
Rep. Mike Carey (R-Ohio) listens during a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on March 9.(Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

In the 2023 fiscal year, the agency paid SSI benefits to an average of 7.5 million recipients a month. Measured in dollars, the overpayment rate in SSI has been running about 8%, according to the agency’s latest annual financial report. That’s much higher than the half a percent overpayment rate for OASI and DI combined.

A written statement Kijakazi submitted to the House subcommittee included a clue that the numbers of people she gave the committee didn’t provide a complete picture. In the statement, dated Oct. 18, Kijakazi used the term “the Social Security program itself” to describe Disability Insurance and Old-Age and Survivors Insurance — but not SSI.

A press release the Ways and Means Committee issued after the hearing made no such distinction. “One Million Americans a Year Affected by Social Security’s Improper Payment Highlights Need for Reform,” it said.

The document obtained via FOIA included other new information. It showed that relatively few beneficiaries contest overpayment notices and that many appeals or requests for waivers fail.

Weeks after KFF Health News and CMG television stations published and broadcast the first stories in their series, the Social Security chief ordered a review of overpayments.

In her statement Dec. 5, the agency spokesperson said that, as part of the review, the Social Security Administration is “looking at how best to inform the Agency, the public, and Congress about this workload.”

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