Social Security: Where’d all the 112 year-olds come from?

Death is a complex records problem; Government-wide, improper payment estimates totaled $124.7 billion in fiscal year 2014

Either there’s a serious problem at the Social Security Administration or we as a people are indeed living WAY longer than we used to.

Judging from expert testimony and a couple Federal reports issued on Capital Hill this week, you can probably guess where the problem lies. Hint: Despite what the SSA says, there really aren’t 6.5 million 112 year-olds.

Problems is, those 6.5 million mostly deceased people have Social Security Numbers that are unaccounted for or are being used in fraud or identity theft and other scams that illegally collect tax money. The numbers also make it a nightmare for agency officials and law enforcement to keep up with.

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Patrick P. O’Carroll, Jr. Inspector General, Social Security Administration told a Congressional hearing this week: …”we matched the 6.5 million SSNs against SSA’s Earnings Suspense File (ESF)—the Agency’s repository for unmatched wage reports—and E-Verify—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program that determines if newly hired employees are authorized to work in the United States. The match identified thousands of instances of potential SSN misuse. For example, we determined that:

SSA transferred to the ESF about $3.1 billion in earnings reported under about 67,000 of the SSNs, from tax years 2006 through 2011.” [If you want to read all the testimony from the hearing go here.]

How much of that money is fraud isn’t clear but the potential is huge with that many Social Security Numbers hanging around unaccounted for.

O’Carroll noted that SSA’s special agents have done a significant number of investigations of individuals who have concealed a family member or other person’s death to collect the deceased’s Social Security benefits. “Specifically, in FY14, we completed investigations on about 630 people who misused benefitsintended for the deceased, and those investigations generated more than $55 million in recoveries, restitution, and projected savings to SSA.This is a high investigative priority; these cases can lead to significant SSA recoveries and projected savings, and Federal prosecution efforts help deter others from committing this crime,” he said.

 Referring to the Social Security Inspector General’s report Senator Thomas Carper-D (DE) stated: In fact, a few thousand of the records reviewed by the Inspector General seem to show ‘living’ individuals with active Social Security numbers who were born before the Civil War. In the real world, public records show that only 35 people worldwide are 112 or older.”

During a hearing on Monday entitled: Examining Federal Improper Payments and Errors in the Death Master File [of the SSA], Carper said: “We will also spend some time today discussing the specific problem of agencies making payments to people who are actually deceased. Improving the collection, verification, and use by federal agencies of data on individuals who have died will help curb hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars in improper payments,” Carper stated.

While verifying eligibility using SSA’s death data can be an effective tool to help prevent improper payments to deceased individuals, SSA faces challenges in maintaining accurate death data, and other federal agencies face challenges in accessing these data. Inaccuracies in death data could adversely affect their usefulness in helping agencies prevent improper payments, the GAO stated.

Indeed, it would be unfair to single out just the SSA in terms of wasteful payments.

According to a Government Accountability Office report released at he same hearing: “Government-wide, improper payment estimates totaled $124.7 billion in fiscal year 2014, a significant increase of approximately $19 billion from the prior year’s estimate of $105.8 billion. The estimated improper payments for fiscal year 2014 were attributable to 124 programs spread among 22 agencies. The increase in the 2014 estimate is attributed primarily to increased error rates in three major programs: the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Medicare Fee- for-Service and Medicaid programs, and the Department of the Treasury’s Earned Income Tax Credit program. These three programs accounted for $80.9 billion in improper payment estimates, or approximately 65% of the government-wide total for fiscal year 2014.”

Seems like a lot of work needs to be done.

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