Supplemental Security Income:

Progress Made in Detecting and Recovering Overpayments, but Management Attention Should Continue

GAO-02-849: Published: Sep 16, 2002. Publicly Released: Sep 16, 2002.

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The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is the nation's largest cash assistance program for the poor. The program paid $33 billion in benefits to 6.8 million aged, blind, and disabled persons in fiscal year 2001. Benefit eligibility and payment amounts for the SSI population are determined by complex and often difficult to verify financial factors such as an individual's income, resource levels, and living arrangements. Thus, the SSI program tends to be difficult, labor intensive, and time consuming to administer. These factors make the SSI program vulnerable to overpayments. The Social Security Administration (SSA) has demonstrated a stronger commitment to SSI program integrity and taken many actions to better deter and detect overpayments. Specifically, SSA has (1) obtained legislative authority in 1999 to use additional tools to verify recipients' financial eligibility for benefits, including strengthening its ability to access individuals' bank account information; (2) developed additional measures to hold staff accountable for completing assigned SSI workloads and resolving overpayment issues; (3) provided field staff with direct access to state databases to facilitate more timely verification of recipient's wages and unemployment information; and (4) significantly increased, since 1998, the number of eligibility reviews conducted each year to verify recipient's income, resources, and continuing eligibility for benefits. In addition to better detection and deterrence of SSI overpayments, SSA has made recovery of overpaid benefits a high priority. Despite these efforts, further improvements in overpayment recovery are possible.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: GAO's report stated that penalties and administrative sanctions are rarely used by SSA to deter and recover overpayments. In an October 30, 2002 memorandum, SSA specifically cited GAO's report and reminded the regions when penalties and sanctions were to be assessed. The agency also emphasized that Field Office managers should fully support sanctions as an effective anti-fraud tool and conduct refresher training on the sanction process. SSA also implemented new systems screens that open when overpayments are processed and facilitate the processing of penalties. SSA also issued a variety of instructions and reminders to staff regarding the systems improvements.

    Recommendation: In order to further strengthen SSA's ability to deter, detect and recover SSI overpayments, the Commissioner of Social Security should evaluate current policies for imposing monetary policies and administrative sanctions and take action to remove any barriers to their usage or effectiveness. Such actions may include informing field staff on when and how these tools should be applied and studying the extent to which more frequent use deters recipient nonreporting.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed that living arrangements and in-kind support and maintenance policies are highly complex and may contribute to payment errors. The agency assessed options included in its 2000 report to simplify such policies and studied modifications to make prior proposals more feasible. In 2005, SSA published regulations that simplified in-kind support and maintenance rules by eliminating clothing from consideration as in-kind support and maintenance (ISM). SSA subsequently presented a proposal, along with cost/savings estimates, for further simplification of living arrangements and ISM rules to the Office of Management and Budget.

    Recommendation: In order to further strengthen SSA's ability to deter, detect and recover SSI overpayments, the Commissioner of Social Security should identify and move forward implementing cost-effective options for simplifying complex living arrangement and in-kind support and maintenance policies, with particular attention to those policies most vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse. An effective implementation strategy may include pilot testing of various options to more accurately assess their ultimate effects.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation, made significant progress, and continues to stress SSI redetermination and diary/alert workload processing goals. The agency increased matches, provided more online access to federal and state databases, increased redetermination processing and overpayment detection, and heightened management oversight over SSI workload processing. In addition, SSA implemented credit bureau reporting and sent notices to 140,000 SSI debtors.

    Recommendation: In order to further strengthen SSA's ability to deter, detect and recover SSI overpayments, the Commissioner of Social Security should sustain and expand the range of SSI program integrity activities underway and continue to develop additional tools to improve program operations and management. This would include increasing the number of SSI redeterminations conducted each year and fully implementing the overpayment detection and recovery tools provided in recent legislation.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed to review the current $500 waiver threshold, including an assessment of the costs and benefits associated with the policy and an analysis of the extent to which staff correctly apply waiver policies. Accordingly, SSA completed a review of its waiver policies in fiscal year 2005.

    Recommendation: In order to further strengthen SSA's ability to deter, detect and recover SSI overpayments, the Commissioner of Social Security should reexamine policies and procedures for SSI overpayment waivers and make revisions as appropriate. This should include an assessment of the current costs and benefits associated with the $500 waiver threshold and the extent to which staff correctly apply waiver policies.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

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