People receiving Social Security and Social Security disability payments say they are getting letters out of the middle of nowhere from the federal government demanding thousands, or even tens of thousands of dollars.
Channel 2 consumer investigator Justin Gray has learned that the Social Security Administration is trying to get back billions of dollars it says it should not have ever paid.
In most of these cases, the recipients had no way to know their Social Security payments were wrong, and in some cases, it was the government’s mistake.
Channel 2 Action News filed a Freedom of Information Act request more than a year ago to find out how many people this is happening to. Just this week, the agency told us they won’t release that information.
Matt and Kristen Cooper have spent the past five years trying to rebuild their lives for their two young children.
In 2018, Matt Cooper was shot between the eyes while on duty as a Covington police officer.
“It’s hard to actually heal and get better when you have to keep revisiting this. The worst day of your life,” Matt Cooper said.
Kristin Cooper agrees, “It just feels like we’ve been failed.”
Social Security payments for Matt and the kids, along with workers’ compensation, are now a big part of the monthly budget.
Kristen switched to teaching part-time.
Then, the Coopers received a letter from Social Security this year saying the Cooper children are being overpaid.
“Every decision that we made for our family was based on the benefits that we were supposed to receive,” Kristen Cooper said.
But now, Social Security is demanding the Coopers repay $30,000 and is cutting the children’s monthly payments from about $900 to just $150.
“You think you grieved and then situations like this come up and it just brings back a level of anger and just the need to protect my family,” Matt Cooper said.
The Coopers are not alone. We know based on agency audits that there are at least hundreds of thousands of people, and maybe even millions, in similar situations.
Channel 2 Action News talked to more than a dozen of them for this investigation.
Lori Cochran is unable to work because multiple sclerosis limits the use of her hands. Social Security told her she owes $27,000.
“They told me it was because of the life insurance policy that I took over from my mom that she had on me, and had cash value of $4,000,” Cochran said.
Alex Hubbard received Social Security benefits because he has Asperger’s Syndrome. He lost them because he started working in the mailroom at Starbucks and Seattle City Light.
Social Security said he owes $11,000.
“I don’t have the money. Unfortunately, I could not afford it,” Hubbard said.
Now, two longtime Social Security workers and employee union leaders are speaking out.
They say in recent years the problem has gotten worse.
“What has changed is that we don’t have enough people to do the work,” Angela Digeronimo said.
Critically low staffing levels mean it can be several years before workers reassess people’s cases and catch overpayments. The amount owed continues growing the whole time.
“We just don’t have the staff to work overpayments or underpayments,” said Jessica LaPointe.
The government’s internal audits show Americans are repaying about $4 billion to $5 billion in overpayments each year, but a whopping $21 billion remains uncovered.
Rebecca Vallas handled overpayment cases for years as an attorney with Legal Aid. She said even when the government makes the mistake, it still demands the money back.
“The reality is you can do everything right and still get hit by a massive overpayment from Social Security,” Vallas said.
Channel 2 Action News first started reporting on these overpayments in 2020. The investigation showed how a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill eliminated the statute of limitations for collecting old debts.
Ginger Snowden got a bill from Social Security that dates back 40 years.
“I just kept saying over and over again, you know, that I was 14 years old,” Snowden said.
Boston University professor Laurence Kotlikoff said fighting one of these cases is extremely difficult.
“If you want to try and get this adjudicated, it’s a nightmare,” Kotlikoff said.
That’s what the Coopers are discovering. Their appeal was denied.
Even though it was a government mistake, not correctly including the Cooper’s workers’ comp payments in calculations.
Kristin Cooper said that a Social Security employee even told them to think about that $30,000 bill as a loan that is now due.
“The system has definitely let us down. And we thought it was something that was going to protect and help us in a time of need,” Kristin Cooper said.
The Social Security Administration declined our request for an interview but sent a statement saying they are required by law to recover these payments and “while staffing losses and resource constraints have challenged our service delivery, our payment accuracy rates remain very high.”
Families can appeal the decisions after their appeal was rejected.
The Coopers are now applying for a waiver.
If you would like to file an appeal with the Social Security Administration, click here.
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