The Social Security Administration (SSA) made nearly $17 billion in disability overpayments in the last decade, according to an audit by the Office of Inspector General (OIG).
Some beneficiaries were able to receive disability benefits for 10 years, even though they were ineligible. The OIG based its estimate of $16.8 billion overpayments on a sample of more than 1,500 Americans who received benefits since 2003, finding nearly half were overpaid.
"Our review of 1,532 beneficiaries in current pay status as of October 2003 found that over a 10-year period (from October 2003 through February 2014), SSA assessed overpayments for 44.5 percent of sampled beneficiaries," the audit said.
"SSA assessed overpayments totaling about $16.8 billion between October 2003 and February 2014 for approximately 4 million beneficiaries who were in current payment status in October 2003," it said.
The agency was able to recover approximately $8.1 billion, though it is still trying to retrieve $6.3 billion in benefits.
The average beneficiary in the OIG’s sample received improper payments for 14 months. Most earned too much or were able to work, making them ineligible for disability.
The findings included 216,070 payments to fugitives or prisoners, and 209,643 payments to dead people.
Responding to the audit on behalf of the agency, Frank Cristaudo, counselor to SSA Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, disputed that all payments were improper. He said federal law requires the agency to continue paying beneficiaries who may be medically ineligible until after they appeal, a process that can take years.
"We appreciate OIG’s follow-up work from the previous review," Cristaudo said. "While the report does not contain any recommendations, we suggest some further clarification of the text of the report."
"During our review of the preliminary findings, we suggested that the OIG clarify the characterization of payments made during the appeal of a medical continuing disability review (CDR) determination to cease benefits," he said. "We are required to continue payments for the duration of an appeal, and these payments are later deemed overpayments if we uphold the CDR cessation on appeal. These payments are clearly not ‘improper’ as that statute requires that we make the payment."