SSA claims process vulnerable to wasteful spending

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

The Social Security Administration’s process for citizens to file claims can create just as much wasteful spending as intentional fraud.

SSA officials say they are trying to address this issue as part of their effort to further decrease improper payments that totaled more than $8 billion in 2009.

“We still have a lot of people that are confused. They feel like a lot of misinformation [is out there] ,” said Rep. Vern Buchanan (D-Fla.) during a hearing Tuesday before the House Ways and Means Committee.

Buchanan, who represents one of the largest senior populations in the country, said many of his constituents complain about the national 1-800 telephone helpline for filing for Social Security.

Carolyn Colvin, SSA’s deputy commissioner, said she was unaware of any problems with the telephone service, but is willing to look into the issue.

“We have implemented a number of major technological systems, which have been very effective in helping us to detect and prevent improper payments,” she said.

One such measure is the SSA’s new website where new retirees can submit applications. Colvin also said people who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can help prevent improper payments by report their earnings monthly through an automated telephone number.

In 2009, the SSA made $8 billion in improper payments, overpaying $6.5 billion to those not entitled or qualified for award, and underpaying those who do qualify by $1.5 billion.

Patrick O’Carroll Jr., the inspector general for Social Security, says improper payments account for 10 percent of their total awards.

“I really feel it is a resource issue in terms of the amount of work we’re able to accomplish,” said Joseph Dirago, president of National Council of Social Security Management Associations. “It’s a product of having the staff in the offices in order to do it.”

Dirago said the SSA faces major staffing losses of up to 3,500 employees. The loss of experienced workers in medical continuing disability reviews (CDRs), he said, will lead to a rise in improper payments.

“Our offices are extremely overextended and there’s little time to address these workloads,” Dirago said. “We do the best with what we can, but when it gets to payment accuracy, it does come down to resources-people need to be trained properly, they need to be mentored for our new hires that come into the offices so they can do the work accuracy. They need the time to do the work.”

Dirago said new hires typically receive 40 hours of training a week for four months.

“After that, they come out of the training pool, they know the basics to handle simple, routine applications, not complex things like program integrity workload,” he said. “It probably takes about two years for a claims representative to be skilled and knowledgeable to handle these kinds of things.”


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Jory Heckman is an intern with Federal News Radio.

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