Social Security payee program oversight explored in subcommittee hearing

U.S. Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL) said there is significant room to improve Social Security Administration (SSA) oversight of the 6.5 million people enrolled in the representative payee program, following a Social Security Inspector General audit that raised red flags about the program.

Buchanan, the chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Oversight, delivered remarks during a joint hearing with the Subcommittee on Social Security on Wednesday that explored how SSA oversees payees. An earlier joint hearing explored how SSA determines when an individual is in need of a representative payee.

“Historically, SSA has relied on annual accounting forms and conducted limited on-site reviews,” Buchanan said. “In 2004, Congress strengthened SSA’s monitoring efforts by requiring additional mandatory on-site reviews for some payees. In addition, SSA uses a predictive model to identify high risk payees for discretionary reviews.”

SSA recently chose a contractor to conduct 5,000 discretionary on-site reviews, nearly double the 2,590 conducted in 2016.

“However, the number of overall visits appears to be far too few to effectively oversee the millions of payees in this program or to assess the adequacy of the model,” Buchanan said. Concerns have been raised by SSA watchdogs, he added, that continue to uncover “example after example of payees taking advantage of beneficiaries.”

An SSA Inspector General audit released in February found that SSA paid about $1 billion in benefits to an estimated 22,426 beneficiaries who did not have a Social Security number from April 2006 to September 2016.

Still, Buchanan said he was encouraged by progress being made through innovative approaches that states are taking in the area of guardianships, much of which may be applicable to the representative payee program.

U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R-PA) highlighted the need for more comprehensive background checks in the representative payee program. “We’ve created a point in time in which checks only go back for representative payees — people have been grandfathered in,” Meehan said.

He described a situation in his district where one woman served as a representative payee for four separate individuals.

“What are we doing to check to assure that any kind of information related to a background of somebody who has already been grandfathered into the payee situation is kept current so that we don’t find a situation where somebody is abusing an individual?” Meehan asked.

U.S. Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) questioned whether the annual accounting form used by SSA accurately identifies those who are misusing benefits.

“A bad actor could submit an accounting form with made up amounts, no supporting documentation, but as long as their numbers are close, they aren’t really flagged,” Walorski said.