In one case, inspectors sampled 71 underpaid beneficiaries in October 2019 and April 2020, but the agency did little to make things right. “As of September 2020,” according to the report, “SSA took action to pay underpayments for six cases. SSA had not taken corrective action for the remaining 65.” A Social Security statement said the agency is reviewing the remaining cases. Its assurance that SSA “will complete corrective actions in accordance with policy” provides nothing now for those with long waits and little savings.
For an organization that is paying 65 million Americans more than $1 trillion in 2020, the underpayments are barely noticeable in the aggregate. But a few thousand dollars each can be huge for the many thousands of individuals who did not get money owed.
“It is important to emphasize that these are earned benefits that people are being deprived of through no fault of their own,” said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, an advocacy organization.
Just as money is a problem for those who didn’t get Social Security checks, money is one reason the agency can’t get the checks out on time, according to Web Phillips, an analyst and consultant with the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Social Security has too much to do for its staff and resources, said Phillips, who worked there for three decades. “This is being driven by the availability of resources,” he said. “It’s not that there are bad people who don’t care. It’s just that they have to triage the work that they’ve got.”
The inspector general’s reproach was issued just two days after two federal employee unions, the Association of Administrative Law Judges and the National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals (Council 220), declared no confidence in President Trump’s Social Security appointees. That same week, Social Security Works said Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul and Deputy Commissioners David Black and Mark Warshawsky should be removed “immediately.” Council 22 also urged their removal.
Encouraging President-elect Joe Biden “to uproot Trump’s Social Security underminers,” Social Security Works began a petition drive in November calling for their ouster. It has more than 230,000 signatures.
The inspector general’s report provides more ammunition for that campaign.
One section of the report carries the heading “No Evidence of the Agency Attempting to Locate Eligible Individuals.” In cases with deceased recipients whose relatives or estates are eligible to receive payments, Social Security must locate the potential recipients. In its sample, the inspector general’s office said “SSA did not pay $21,363 on behalf of 10 deceased beneficiaries. . . . We found no evidence of SSA employees’ attempts to contact or locate eligible individuals for the payments due to these deceased beneficiaries.”
Time and again, the inspector general’s report said “we found no evidence,” or similar wording, to describe Social Security’s repeated failures to appropriately address the problems of underpayments, including:
●“We found no evidence that SSA took action to pay the beneficiaries based on the last address on record or notify the beneficiaries of the underpayment.”
●“We found no evidence SSA attempted to locate the 25 beneficiaries or individuals in our sample who may have been eligible for $127,113 in underpayments.”
●“We found no evidence of SSA employees’ attempts to contact or locate eligible individuals for the payments due to these deceased beneficiaries.”
●“We found no evidence of systems alerts to remind SSA employees to resolve the underpayments.”
Rep. John B. Larson, chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, called the report’s finding “alarming.”
“Underpayments are just as important as overpayments,” said Larson (D-Conn.), “and SSA leaders need to pay as much attention to preventing and correcting underpayments as they do to overpayments.” Next month, his panel will examine reasons for the errors and ways to fix them.
Speaking as “the Republican leader on Social Security,” Rep. Tom Reed (N.Y.) promised to hold SSA accountable. “It’s not fair that in some cases the SSA pays people less than they’ve earned, and the SSA needs to do better,” said Reed, the subcommittee’s ranking minority-party member.
SSA said underpayments are not a recurring problem, but years of reports tell a different story. A 2008 inspector general’s office investigation said the agency “needed to improve its controls and procedures to ensure underpayments were appropriately paid.” The office has issued more than three dozen reports identifying underpayments in the past four years, with several indicating underpayments far greater than those in the current report.
“We are committed to ensuring that beneficiaries receive correct and timely payments,” SSA’s statement said, citing a “multiyear project to automate the release of some underpayments for deceased beneficiaries.”
For advocate Altman, the problem is not just technology, but also ideology. In the past 40 years, she said, the majority of Senate-confirmed SSA commissioners were nominated by Republicans.
“SSA’s misplaced focus on overpayments rather than on all improper payments (including underpayments),” she wrote by email, “is the result of decades of Republican leadership that’s focused on preventing people from getting the benefits they’ve earned.”