The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program issued an estimated $1.1 million in improper payments to recipients who lived outside the United States, according to an audit by the Social Security Administration Inspector General (IG).
The audit found that there were 1,196 recipients who received payments in their bank accounts outside of the United States. The majority of those, 1,171, went to banks in Puerto Rico, while 25 went to foreign banks by way of international direct deposit. Those included banks in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Italy, Poland, India, Canada, and Hungary.
The audit found that 246 of those payments worth $1.1 million received outside the United States were improper.
Federal law prohibits disability benefits being paid to individuals outside of the United States.
"With limited exceptions, no individual shall be considered eligible for SSI payments for any month throughout which the individual is outside the United States," the report states. SSI recipients are allowed to receive payments established in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
When a beneficiary receives a payment outside of the United States, the agency’s systems generate an alert to notify a field office that the beneficiary person is ineligible. The audit found that the agency’s personnel did not respond to these alerts in a timely manner, which allowed improper payments to be made.
Many of the recipients were outside the United States for a month or longer. The IG subpoenaed a bank in Puerto Rico, which is not named in the report, after finding that many of the 1,171 recipients had received payments there. The audit reviewed bank records of 57 recipients who were receiving payments and found that 25 had been outside of the United States for a month or longer. Thirteen of those were outside the United States for more than a year.
For example, one beneficiary moved to the Dominican Republic in July 2011 after enrolling in international direct deposit. Even though the agency updated the record to reflect the beneficiary’s new address, the agency continued issuing payments. It wasn’t until May 2015, roughly four years later, that the agency stopped the payments, which led to an overpayment of $15,053.
"Social Security is committed to strengthening the integrity of our programs and reducing improper payments," said William Jarrett, a public affairs specialist with the Social Security Administration. "As the report notes, Social Security Income (SSI) recipients, with very limited exceptions, must be legally present and residing in the United States (U.S.) or the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianna Islands to be eligible for benefits."
"We will convene an inter-component workgroup to address the issues presented in this report," said Jarrett. "The workgroup will evaluate our current policy, operations, and related system controls to determine where we can make changes in our processes to ensure we take any necessary action with regard to SSI recipients who have payments direct deposited into banks in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands."
Jarrett also said SSA would try to determine the best way to re-verify the eligibility (residency status) of SSI recipients who receive payments at bank accounts established in Puerto Rico or the Virgin Islands.
"We plan to issue a reminder to staff in early calendar year 2016 to resolve foreign address alerts, timely," he said.