As Congress continues to battle over the budget and tries to rein in the mounting national debt, the federal government wastes billions by mismanagement, fraud, abuse and lack of oversight.
In the latest saga of wasted tax dollars---a new report shows that the Social Security Administration overpaid $1.29 billion in disability benefits over the last three years.
The Government Accountability Office, which conducted the audit, said that at least 36,000 people—less than one-half of 1 percent of all disability payment beneficiaries-- received these overpayments. That includes at least one recipient who collected more than $90,000 in excess benefits, while others collected an extra $74,000 and $57,000.
The GAO says this may be the tip of iceberg although it’s impossible to determine exactly how many people received improper payments without detailed case-by-case investigations by the SSA.
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For many people, it’s easier to qualify for disability payments than it is to qualify for today’s high-skilled jobs. Since 2000, the number of recipients rose by 73 percent, even though the workforce rose by less than 10 percent. One reason for the increase is the growing number of baby boomers and others who make up 67 percent of all beneficiaries who can easily claim “muscle pain” or mental disorders like depression and qualify for the benefit. There are discussions among lawmakers and the Obama administration to revise those standards because SSDI is set to go broke by 2016.
STOPPING THE CHEATERS
In order to curb future improper payments, the GAO recommended, “to the extent it is cost-effective and feasible, [the SSA should] create a way to detect cases in which payments are made to individuals earning income that disqualifies them from the disability program.”
Of course, finding a cost-effective way to do that would be challenging, given the size of the program. Indeed, in 2011 nearly 9 million Americans received disability benefits that totaled more than $128 billion. Last year, Social Security paid our $137 billion in disability payments.
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To qualify for these benefits, which average about $1,000 each month, individuals must have suffered some kind of physical or mental impairment that prevents them from getting a job for a year or longer. And they must make less than $1,000 each month.
This isn’t the first time the SSA has come under fire for issuing millions in improper payments. In fact, earlier this summer SSA’s Inspector General reported that more than 2,000 Americans received disability insurance or Supplemental security income payments, despite being dead for at least a year.
In the agency’s defense, the IG said that SSA issues at least $700 billion in benefit payments each year to about 60 million people, so “even the slightest calculating error can result in millions of dollars of overpayments or underpayments.”