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Covid Relief Payments Triggered Feds to Demand Money Back From Social Security Recipients
素人色情片Health News / CMG TV Stations Investigation

Covid Relief Payments Triggered Feds to Demand Money Back From Social Security Recipients

Julia Greune, who is blind and has cerebral palsy, with her father, Dave Greune. Dave received notice from the Social Security Administration that his daughter was overpaid 鈥渂ecause her resources were more than a person could own and still get SSI.鈥 (Cox Media Group)

As the nation reeled from covid-19, the federal government sent many Americans a financial lifeline.

But some recipients say the covid relief payments have triggered financial distress by jeopardizing their Social Security benefits.

The government has demanded they repay much larger amounts 鈥 thousands of dollars in benefits for the poor and disabled distributed by the Social Security Administration.

鈥淭he government gave this money to them with one hand. They should not be trying to take it back with the other,鈥 said Jen Burdick, an attorney at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia who has helped many people contest repayment demands.

Jo Vaughn, a disabled 63-year-old in New Mexico, received $3,200 in federal covid relief. Then came a letter from the Social Security Administration dated Aug. 25, 2023, saying she owed the government $14,026.

鈥淭hey are sending me to a very early grave,鈥 Vaughn said.

The covid clawbacks show the trauma the Social Security Administration can cause when it claims to have overpaid beneficiaries, many of them highly vulnerable, then calls on them to pay the money back.

And the collection efforts illustrate the limitations and dysfunction that have come to define the agency.

Social Security Administration spokesperson Nicole Tiggemann declined to comment for this article or to arrange an interview with the agency鈥檚 acting commissioner, Kilolo Kijakazi.



In the wake of a recent investigation by 素人色情片Health News and Cox Media Group, House and Senate members have called for action on problems at the Social Security Administration. The agency has announced that it is undertaking a review of its own, and a House panel is scheduled to hold a hearing on Oct. 18.

Vaughn and other recipients didn鈥檛 ask for the covid money. The checks, known as economic impact or stimulus payments, landed automatically in their mailboxes or bank accounts in three installments in 2020 and 2021. The payments, which were , totaled as much as $3,200 per person.

The payments pushed some beneficiaries鈥 bank balances above the $2,000 asset limit for individuals on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for people with little or no income or assets who are blind, disabled, or 65 or over. The limit, which hasn鈥檛 been adjusted for inflation in decades, can discourage people from working or saving more than a perilously small amount of money.

In some cases, when the Social Security Administration belatedly noticed the higher bank balances, it concluded the beneficiaries no longer qualified for SSI, according to people affected. Then the agency set out to recapture years of SSI benefits it alleged they shouldn鈥檛 have received.

Even as recipients appealed the actions, the agency stopped sending monthly benefit checks.

The ripple effects can disrupt health care, too. In most states, receiving SSI makes someone eligible for Medicaid, so halting SSI benefits can jeopardize coverage under the public health insurance program, said Darcy Milburn of The Arc, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities.

Vaughn, who suffered a disabling injury while working as a cook at a truck stop, said she depends on the $557 she was receiving from SSI each month. It hasn鈥檛 come since August, she said.

Her only remaining income, she said, is $377 in monthly Social Security retirement payments.

鈥淚鈥檓 afraid of being homeless,鈥 she said by phone. 鈥淚 don鈥檛 want to end up on the street.鈥

Or even worse, she said in an email: 鈥淚f I don鈥檛 start receiving my money back, well let鈥檚 just say I have my will ready.鈥

Actions Defy Agency鈥檚 Own Policy

The covid stimulus payments aren鈥檛 supposed to trigger Social Security clawbacks.

Early in the pandemic, the Social Security Administration said that, when assessing people鈥檚 eligibility for SSI, it would exclude the payments for 12 months. Later, it said it would exclude them indefinitely.

But what the agency says and what it does 鈥 indeed, what it is capable of doing 鈥 are often very different, people who study the agency said.

鈥淚t鈥檚 not clear SSA knows where money in beneficiaries鈥 accounts is coming from,鈥 said Kathleen Romig, director of Social Security and disability policy at the .

鈥淎s far as we can tell, SSA simply doesn鈥檛 have the tools to implement a permanent exclusion from the resource limit,鈥 Romig said.

The number of people who have received Social Security clawback notices due to covid relief payments is unclear.

What鈥檚 more, beneficiaries might not realize stimulus payments could be at the root of alleged overpayments. As a result, they may be ill-equipped to challenge any clawbacks.



鈥淎 lot of people have been caught up in inaccurate or improper鈥 overpayment notices 鈥渂ecause of stimulus money,鈥 said Burdick, the legal aid attorney in Philadelphia. She estimated that her office alone had seen about a hundred such cases.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), chair of the Senate Finance Committee, asked the Social Security Administration in September 2021 how many people had their SSI payments reduced or cut off on account of the stimulus payments. In its written response, .

At the time, Wyden said the agency鈥檚 decision to indefinitely exclude stimulus payments from the asset limit 鈥渕ay have come too late for many struggling families.鈥

The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, an umbrella group for advocacy organizations, flagged the problem as early as May 2021. In a letter to the Finance Committee, the group said it was concerned that some people would have their benefits reduced 鈥渋n order to recover overpayments that never should have been assessed.鈥

Vaughn said she saved her covid stimulus funds to leave herself some money to fall back on.

When the Social Security Administration told her she had been over the asset limit for more than two years, the agency didn鈥檛 mention the stimulus payments. But Vaughn reviewed her bank records and concluded the covid payments were the cause.

Lost in the System

A photo of a father helping his adult child stand up from a sofa.
Julia Greune with her father, Dave Greune.(Cox Media Group)

Dave Greune of North Carolina said that, in the case of his disabled 43-year-old daughter, Julia, the cause of an overpayment notice was clear.

The reason her assets exceeded the limit, Greune said, was that $3,200 in stimulus payments had been deposited directly into her bank account by the same government now demanding she repay almost twice that amount.

How does he know?

The only funds that flowed into Julia鈥檚 account were her SSI payments and the covid stimulus payments, Greune said.

In April 2023, two years after Julia鈥檚 last stimulus payment, the agency notified Greune that it had been overpaying her since September 2020.

First it said she owed $7,374.72. Later, it revised that to $6,253.38.

Julia is blind with cerebral palsy and a mental disability, Greune said, leaving her 鈥渢otally disabled.鈥 The family was saving the stimulus money to buy her a new wheelchair, he said.

In correspondence, the agency pointed to checking account balances as the basis for its finding that Julia exceeded the $2,000 asset limit. It noted that the agency doesn鈥檛 count the value of a home, one vehicle, or 鈥渁 burial fund of up to $1,500.鈥 But it didn鈥檛 alert Greune that, according to its own policy, covid stimulus payments shouldn鈥檛 count toward the limit. He figured that out himself.

Greune said he immediately filed an appeal online.

In July, at the direction of an agency representative, he drove 45 minutes to a Social Security office in Raleigh and delivered a stack of bank statements and an appeal form.

Greune, 64 and retired from a career in real estate, logged many unsuccessful efforts to follow up by phone. Left on hold for 15 minutes until the call dropped. Left on hold for 46 minutes until the call dropped.

Ultimately, he said, he reached a person who told him she saw no record of the agency having received the appeal he filed online 鈥 or the documents he delivered by hand.

In the meantime, Social Security stopped sending Julia鈥檚 monthly benefits. The last payment, of $609.34, arrived six months ago, he said.

Late last month, the county government sent Julia a notice that, because the Social Security Administration was stopping her SSI checks, the county was reviewing her eligibility for Medicaid.

鈥淎nd if we don鈥檛 have Medicaid that鈥檚 going to be a big problem,鈥 Greune said. 鈥淣ow I鈥檓 really pissed off.鈥

A photo of a man sitting with a pen and paperwork, looking at an interviewer out of frame.
Dave Greune says the sole reason his daughter Julia鈥檚 assets exceeded the Social Security Administration鈥檚 limit to receive SSI was that she received $3,200 in stimulus payments from the same government now demanding almost twice that amount be paid back.(Cox Media Group)

鈥楢ngst, Lots of It鈥

In early 2021, about a year after the first economic impact payments, known as EIPs, were distributed, the Social Security Administration issued what it called an 鈥.鈥

It instructed staff on how to handle the payments and contained information that could have been useful to SSI beneficiaries.

鈥淒evelop and exclude the EIP from resources鈥 鈥 in other words, assets 鈥 鈥渙nly when an individual alleges receiving and retaining an amount that may affect eligibility,鈥 it said.

It also told staff to take beneficiaries at their word. 鈥淎ccept the individual鈥檚 allegation,鈥 it said.

Martin Helmer of Denver, 77, said that, when the Social Security Administration made a mistake involving his son鈥檚 benefits, the burden fell on him to speak up.

He said he felt he was treated as guilty until proven innocent.

鈥淚t was angst, lots of it,鈥 Helmer said, 鈥渆specially when I saw how hard-ass they were being about everything.鈥

Helmer manages the benefits for his 40-year-old son, Quinn, who has a mental illness. In July, the Social Security Administration sent a letter alleging in part that, since May 2021, Quinn had received more than $17,000 for which he was ineligible.

Going forward, the agency said, it would reduce his benefits.

Helmer concluded that the main issue was the covid stimulus payments; other than Social Security benefits, that was the only money that flowed into Quinn鈥檚 account, he said.

Helmer, a retired auditor and IRS agent, spent several days studying an agency manual. He contested the agency鈥檚 action and won.

He worries how other people would fare 鈥 and how his son would manage without him.

鈥淚 think disabled people and their caretakers have maybe less energy than the average person to deal with something like this,鈥 he said, 鈥渨hen they鈥檙e already dealing with a lot.鈥

Madison Carter of WSOC-TV in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.

Do you have an experience with Social Security overpayments you鈥檇 like to share? to contact our reporting team.