“Program Integrity” is an Orwellian attack on Social Security recipients

“Program integrity” is the kind of technical term that sounds good. Who wouldn’t want to run social security with integrity? But unfortunately, in the world of Alice in Wonderland Washington, the phrase doesn’t mean what you think.

Administering social security with integrity seems to mean making sure that the right payments go to the right people and the right amounts. You might think this means the Social Security Administration (SSA) is helping working families get the benefits they’ve earned. Instead, it means the opposite.

“Program Integrity” is an insider code for saving money. How is the money saved? By going after people who haven’t done anything wrong. By attacking people with severe disabilities who have to prove time and time again that they are unable to support themselves. By going after people whose SSA benefits were wrongly paid, often because of mistakes made by the SSA itself.

Targets can be homeless people. They may not speak English. They may have intellectual challenges. They hardly ever have professional representatives to help them get through the extremely stressful, complicated and lengthy process of challenging the government.

Imagine being a senior with no income other than your monthly benefit of $ 794 (the maximum federal benefit from the Social Security Supplemental Program, Supplemental Security Income). You live frugally, even cutting your medications in half because you can’t afford them.

You follow all the complicated rules, including letting SSA know that your child is back in town and that they buy groceries for you once a week. The months go by. Then, out of the blue, SSA informs you that your SSI benefit should have been reduced by the value of these groceries, so you must repay this overpayment within the next 30 days!

This state-run hunt is not limited to low-income and poorly educated people, either. My colleague’s mother received social security benefits as a divorced spouse. When she remarried, she went to the ASS office with her new husband. She told the claims representative that she had just remarried and applied for a new social security card under her new married name.

One day, out of the blue, she opened her mail and found a notice from SSA stating that she owed the government $ 55,000, which she was instructed to repay immediately. (Unbeknownst to her, the spousal benefit based on her first marriage was supposed to cease when she remarried.) Her son, who is a Social Security expert, spent six months in discussions with the SSA to settle the matter. problem. Despite her son’s expertise, diligence and ability to defend her, the stress resulted in a short stay in the hospital and contributed to a serious and permanent deterioration in her health.

As the mind-boggling $ 55,000 claim illustrates, SSA may not catch its mistakes quickly. Mary Grice was four years old when her father passed away, leaving her mother and their five minor children with the Social Security survivor benefits he had earned for them. Fifty-four years later, four years after her mother’s death, she received a notice from SSA saying she overpaid the family and, although she was just a child, she was responsible. overpayment!

Adding insult to injury, those who have received overpayments through no fault of their own are qualified as “debtors” by the ASS. Overpayments to “debtors” are routinely prosecuted as part of “program integrity” because they save Social Security money.

In contrast, when the SSA pays lower benefits than it should, it often fails to correct these underpayments. Five years ago, SSA discovered that due to computer errors, it was not paying benefits to hundreds of thousands of children. Surprisingly, he has not even contacted these families yet, let alone paid the years of benefits owed.

The number of unadjusted underpayments is enormous. Last year, the Inspector General of the SSA followed up on a 2014 audit of the underpaid. Looking only at new underpayments since its previous audit and only deceased or terminated beneficiaries, it estimated that SSA had unadjusted underpayments owed to 45,496 people totaling $ 142.5 million. It doesn’t even include the underpaid to those who are still receiving benefits or those who never received benefits inappropriately in the first place!

Republican-controlled congresses have doubled their zeal over these distorted priorities. They reduced SSA’s overall administrative budget while allocating increasingly large percentages of that budget to “program integrity”. Additionally, over the past two decades, the only SSA commissioners confirmed by the Senate have been appointed by Republican presidents. These Republican commissioners share distorted priorities.

For those opposed to Social Security, the continuation of benefits is a positive result. If they cannot reduce benefits through legislation, they can at least reduce them through “program integrity”. Their strategy is to treat everyone – from people with disabilities to the elderly to children who have lost their parents – as dishonest and eager to commit fraud. As a side benefit to opponents, the focus on prosecuting people helps undermine trust and support not just for Social Security, but for our government more generally.

This contradictory mindset is a radical departure from the way Social Security was administered in the past. Indeed, the first Commissioner of Social Security, Arthur Altmeyer, understood that the providers had well deserved their benefits. Social security officials should help, he said. They should not act from a distance and certainly not impose obstacles.

A federal law had long been on the books that prohibited federal officials from helping people who made claims against the government. Citing the law, GAO initially opposed the policy established by Altmeyer. After a lengthy meeting, however, Altmeyer convinced the Comptroller General that Social Security was a different kind of claim, and the GAO withdrew his objection.

The irony of the focus of opponents of Social Security on saving money is that Social Security is extremely efficient and accurate, far more than its private insurance counterparts. Social Security spends less than a penny of every dollar on administration. The remaining 99 cents are spent on benefits. In contrast, private insurance companies spend 29.2 cents of every dollar on operating and other expenses and only 70.8 cents of every dollar on benefit payments.

Plus, Social Security benefit payments are over 99% accurate, with only a tiny fraction of inaccurate payments due to fraud. Again, in contrast, private insurance companies experience ten percent fraud rates and even higher rates of wrongful payments, when non-fraudulent reasons are taken into account!

SSA must go back to its roots, to its fundamental mission of helping everyone obtain the benefits to which they are entitled. It should devote at least as much effort to the underpayments as to the overpayments. It should focus more on educating the public on the benefits to which it is entitled and less on questioning benefits already granted.

Similarly, the SSA should reinstate the mailing of income tax and benefit returns to all workers aged 25 and over, as the law explicitly and clearly requires. This will help ensure accuracy by letting workers know what income is being reported to SSA and correcting errors in a timely manner.

In its budget, the former President TrumpDonald Trump JD Vance says he regrets past criticism of Trump Five Big Questions on Jan.6 Select Committee First Republican announces his bid for Massachusetts governor MORE proposed a substantial increase in the percentage of sub-Saharan Africa’s budget devoted to “program integrity”. President Joe bidenJoe BidenFive Big Questions on the January 6 Select Committee While Afghanistan remains in limbo, can the global South trust the West? When should the president be able to fire a watchdog? AFTERSouth Africa’s budget has rightly increased the SSA budget and rightly reduced the amount of “program integrity” proposed by Trump. It’s a positive step, but Biden and the Social Security champions in Congress should go much further.

Congress should increase the budget for the SSA and order the SSA to use these increased funds to improve customer service. None of these funds should be spent on harassing the public in the name of “program integrity”.

Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.

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