The head of Social Security apologizes to Congress for misleading testimony about overpayments

By | December 18, 2023

The head of the Social Security Administration has sent a letter of apology to members of Congress over testimony in which she underestimated the extent of the agency’s overpayments to beneficiaries.

“I would like to apologize for any confusion or misunderstanding during the October hearing,” Acting Commissioner Kilolo Kijakazi wrote in a Dec. 11 letter.

Kijakazi sent the letter days after KFF Health News and Cox Media Group reported that the agency is seeking refunds from more than 2 million people a year — more than twice as many as Kijakazi told a House panel during an Oct. 18 hearing. announced.

The report was based on a Social Security document that the news organizations obtained through a Freedom of Information Act records request.

“In my effort to respond to the Commission’s questions regarding overpayment numbers, I have provided a preliminary, unvetted and partial response,” Kijakazi said in her apology letter.

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“My goal – and SSA’s – is always to provide Congress with the most complete, accurate and responsive information possible,” Kijakazi said. “We did not do that in this case and we will use this experience to improve our communications with Congress in the future.”

In an interview before she sent the apology, Rep. Greg Steube (R-Fla.) said Kijakazi “wasn’t completely forthcoming” during the hearing, and he wondered whether the agency had “intentionally deflated the numbers.”

Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said in a Dec. 12 interview that the agency had damaged its credibility by “not telling the truth.”

The House Ways and Means Committee’s Social Security Subcommittee hearing focused on the agency’s record of sending out billions of dollars in benefits that it later concludes it should never have paid — and then, sometimes years later, requiring recipients to pay the money. back.

The unexpected bills, which can total tens of thousands of dollars or more, can be devastating to the recipients. Many are disabled and struggle to make ends meet on a minimal income.

Read: Lawmaker steps up oversight of SSA in effort to fix Social Security overpayments

Until the hearing, the agency had not disclosed the number of people affected, making it harder for policymakers to gauge the severity of the problem and what to do about it.

During the hearing, Rep. Mike Carey (R-Ohio) asked how many people receive an overpayment notice each year.

Kijakazi read two precise numbers on a piece of paper: 1,028,389 for fiscal year 2022 and 986,912 for fiscal year 2023. Under further questioning, she repeated the numbers. She also said they were “on Social Security” and “on Social Security.”

After the hearing, KFF Health News and Cox Media Group sent Social Security’s press office several emails over a period of weeks requesting clarification: did the numbers Kijakazi gave at the hearing represent all programs administered by the Social Security Administration, or just a subset?

SSA spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann did not provide an immediate answer.

Read: Social Security clawbacks affect a million more people than the agency’s chief told Congress

The news organizations filed the FOIA request for a copy of the document from which Kijakazi read the numbers during the hearing. The document showed that Kijakazi did not tell members of the House of Representatives the whole story.

She read numbers that included two benefit programs, but she repeatedly left out the larger numbers of a third program, which were also on the piece of paper directly below the numbers she read.

She left out more than a million people a year.

More than seven weeks passed before she sent the apology to Congress.

“We should have provided additional context after the hearing,” she said in her letter. “I take seriously the commitment that all federal officials make to provide Congress with accurate information, and I deeply regret that I did not immediately contact you for more information.”

Read: ‘It’s like a black hole’: Sen. Rick Scott still seeks answers on Social Security overpayments

KFF Health News and Cox Media Group obtained a copy of the letter addressed to Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), chairman of the Ways and Means’ Subcommittee on Social Security, and sent a copy to a Democratic member of the committee.

Asked which members of Congress received the letter, Tiggemann said in an email: “The correspondence occurred between Acting Commissioner Kijakazi and members of the committee.”

Tiggemann did not respond to a request for an interview with Kijakazi.

In her letter, Kijakazi essentially disavowed the figures she had given to the committee. She said the agency is trying to ensure it has “the right data to make meaningful improvements.”

“We are committed to sharing this data with the committee and the public,” she wrote, “once it has been fully vetted.”

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