GAO cites Social Security for billions in improper payments, spotty implementation of fixes

Social Security disability programs are on GAO's High Risk List "due to persistent workload and other management challenges," watchdog official testifies.

Updated: October 9, 2021 - 11:05pm

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This week's Golden Horseshoe goes to the Social Security Administration for its failure to resolve problems resulting in billions in improper payments to Supplemental Security Income beneficiaries — issues identified for remediation by the Government Accountability Office over the span of a decade. 

Such improper payments totalled $4.6 billion in FY 2019 alone.

In a report and testimony released last month, the Government Accountability Office reviewed the recent history of these problems and the SSA's uneven record of implementing GAO recommendations for improvement.

"Prior and ongoing GAO work has identified issues with SSA's efforts to reduce improper payments, including overpayments, to SSI beneficiaries in general and beneficiaries who are working in particular," the GAO reported. 

SSI is a federal program under the SSA that gives cash benefits to the elderly, blind or the disabled and is a safety net for those who have little or no income. The GAO reported that as of July 2021 "approximately 71 percent of SSI beneficiaries were children or working-age individuals with disabilities.”

"SSA faces longstanding challenges related to administering SSI and its other disability programs," the GAO found. "GAO has issued multiple reports with recommendations on how SSA might address these challenges.

"While SSA has taken steps to reduce overpayments, SSA's Office of Inspector General found that SSA had not resolved lags in updating information on beneficiaries' earnings. In addition, SSA has not implemented a 2020 GAO priority recommendation that it develop and implement a process to measure the effectiveness of its corrective actions for improper payments, including overpayments."

The GAO also found that the agency's voluntary Ticket Program, which would incentivize those on SSI to work, has had abysmal results.

"SSA administers work incentives and other employment supports for transition-age youth (ages 14 to 17) on SSI," the GAO reported. "These supports encourage work by allowing these youth to keep at least some of their benefits even if they have earnings."

However, less than 1.5% of SSI youth "benefitted from these incentives" in the period from 2012 to 2015, the GAO found.  

"[W]hile SSA has agreed with and taken action on many of our recommendations, others have not been implemented," the GAO's Elizabeth Curda recently testified before the  Senate Finance Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy. "In addition, Social Security disability programs are on GAO's High Risk List due to persistent workload and other management challenges."

SSA overpayments "may be especially burdensome if the recipients were not aware they were overpaid and spent the money," testified Curda, director of education, workforce, and income security for the GAO.

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