oversight

Priority Open Recommendations: Social Security Administration

Published by the Government Accountability Office on 2019-04-12.

Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)

441 G St. N.W.                                                                             Comptroller General
Washington, DC 20548                                                                       of the United States



April 5, 2019


Nancy A. Berryhill
Acting Commissioner
U.S. Social Security Administration
6401 Security Boulevard
Windsor Park Building
Baltimore, MD 21235

Priority Open Recommendations: Social Security Administration

Dear Acting Commissioner Berryhill:

The purpose of this letter is to provide you with an update on the overall status of the Social
Security Administration’s (SSA) implementation of GAO’s recommendations and to call your
continued personal attention to areas where open recommendations should be given high
priority. 1 In November 2018, we reported that, on a government-wide basis, 77 percent of our
recommendations made 4 years ago were implemented. 2 SSA’s recommendation
implementation rate was 90 percent. As of March 2019, SSA had 63 open recommendations.
Fully implementing these open recommendations could significantly improve SSA’s operations.

Since our February 2018 letter, SSA has implemented three of our seven open priority
recommendations.

      •   Consistent with written policy, and to help people make well-informed decisions about
          when to claim their benefits, SSA took action to ensure its claims specialists knew to
          provide information to claimants about their monthly retirement benefits and how
          amounts can vary depending on their age when they start collecting them. This should
          help older Americans’ make well-informed decisions that affect their lifetime benefit
          amounts and retirement security.

      •   SSA has developed a plan to include physician-assisted fraud as part of its broader
          disability fraud risk assessment efforts. This action should help the agency to better
          identify, and potentially prevent physician-assisted fraud in the future and improve its
          stewardship of federal funds.

      •   SSA has begun using quarterly wage data to identify Social Security Disability Insurance
          (DI) beneficiaries’ work activity, including work activity during the 5-month waiting period


1
 Priority recommendations are those that GAO believes warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or
agencies. They are highlighted because, upon implementation, they may significantly improve government
operations, for example, by realizing large dollar savings; eliminating mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or making
progress toward addressing a high risk or fragmentation, overlap, or duplication issue.
2
    GAO, Performance and Accountability Report: Fiscal Year 2018, GAO-19-1SP (Washington, D.C.: Nov. 15, 2018).



Page 1                              GAO-19-394SP Social Security Administration Priority Recommendations
         for benefits. This should improve SSA’s ability to detect and prevent potential DI
         overpayments due to work activity during the waiting period.

SSA has four priority recommendations remaining from those we identified in our 2018 letter.
We ask for your continued attention to these remaining recommendations. (See the enclosure
for the list of these recommendations.)

The four priority recommendations fall into the two areas listed below.

Reduce Improper Payments. There are three priority recommendations in this area. Two were
made in July 2015, when we recommended that SSA (1) evaluate alternatives to the agency’s
current approach for reducing DI overpayments stemming from the concurrent receipt of federal
workers’ compensation payments and (2) strengthen its internal controls over these DI
overpayments by implementing the alternative approach to self-reporting that yields the greatest
net benefits. SSA agreed with both of these recommendations but, as of January 2019, SSA
had not fully implemented its plans to use Federal Employees’ Compensation Act (FECA) data
to reduce DI benefits in accordance with federal law or implemented an alternative approach
that provides greater net benefits. Doing so would help improve the financial status of the DI
program and ensure that SSA does not continue overpaying beneficiaries who may have
difficulty repaying debt incurred by SSA’s overpayments.

In October 2015, we recommended that SSA develop a timetable for implementing updates to
its Debt Management System to (a) align system controls with SSA policy, so that waivers over
$1,000 cannot be administratively waived, and (b) ensure that evidence supporting waiver
decisions is sufficiently maintained to allow for subsequent monitoring and oversight. Although
SSA implemented the second part of the recommendation, continuing limitations in SSA’s Debt
Management System could allow staff to administratively approve waivers greater than $1,000
without review or detection by managers in violation of SSA policy. As of January 2019, SSA
reported that it is building a new debt management system, which will include controls to
prevent administrative waivers over $1,000. SSA anticipates these controls, which are tied to
broader changes to SSA’s debt management system, will be in place in fiscal year 2020.
However, until the controls are implemented, SSA will not have assurance that staff are
appropriately processing such waivers. In the interim, SSA should consider alternative
approaches for preventing inappropriate waivers, such as conducting regular, targeted reviews
of administrative waivers over $1,000 dollars to ensure that they are being processed correctly.

Increase Overpayment Recovery. In April 2016, we recommended SSA increase the minimum
amount that it recoups from overpaid DI beneficiaries from $10 to 10 percent withholding from
their monthly DI benefit amount. This change would increase scheduled collections and reduce
the time it will take to fully recover overpayments, while minimizing the effect on beneficiaries
receiving the lowest monthly benefits. It would also promote equity in how SSA deals with
overpayments across its disability benefit programs. SSA agreed with this recommendation, and
stated that it has submitted legislative proposals in the President’s fiscal year 2017 - 2019
budgets to establish a minimum withholding for overpayments of 10 percent of a beneficiary's
monthly benefit, but these proposals have not yet been enacted. SSA reported that it is also
pursuing this change through regulation; however, this effort also remained incomplete as of
January 2019.

                                        --   --   --   --   --

As you know, in March, we issued our biennial update to our high risk program, which identifies
government operations with greater vulnerabilities to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement


Page 2                         GAO-19-394SP Social Security Administration Priority Recommendations
or the need for transformation to address economy, efficiency, or effectiveness challenges. 3 Our
high risk program has served to identify and help resolve serious weaknesses in areas that
involve substantial resources and provide critical service to the public.

One of our high risk areas, improving and modernizing federal disability programs, centers
directly on SSA. Several other government-wide high-risk areas also have direct implications for
SSA and its operations. These include (1) the government-wide security clearance process, (2)
ensuring cybersecurity of the nation, (3) improving management of IT acquisitions and
operations, (4) managing federal real property, and (5) addressing strategic human capital
management. We urge your attention to the SSA and government wide high risk issues as they
relate to SSA. Progress on high risk issues has been possible through the concerted actions
and efforts of Congress, Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and the leadership and staff
in agencies, including within SSA.

Copies of this report are being sent to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget and
appropriate congressional committees including the Committees on Appropriations, Budget, and
Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, United States Senate; and the Committees on
Appropriations, Budget, and Oversight and Reform, House of Representatives. In addition, the
report will be available at no charge on the GAO website at http://www.gao.gov.

I appreciate SSA’s continued commitment to these important issues. If you have any questions
or would like to discuss any of the issues outlined in this letter, please do not hesitate to contact
me or Barbara Bovbjerg, Managing Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security at
bovbjergb@gao.gov or 202-512-7215. Contact points for our offices of Congressional Relations
and Public Affairs may be found on the last page of this report. Our teams will continue to
coordinate with your staff on all 63 open recommendations, as well as those additional
recommendations in the high-risk areas for which SSA has a leading role. Thank you for your
attention to these matters.

Sincerely yours,




Gene L. Dodaro
Comptroller General
of the United States

Enclosure




3
 GAO, High-Risk Series: Substantial Efforts Needed to Achieve Greater Progress on High-Risk Areas, GAO-19-
157SP (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 6, 2019).



Page 3                           GAO-19-394SP Social Security Administration Priority Recommendations
Enclosure

                          Priority Open Recommendations to SSA

Reduce Improper Payments

Disability Insurance: Actions Needed to Help Prevent Potential Overpayments to Individuals
Receiving Concurrent Federal Workers' Compensation. GAO-15-531. Washington, D.C.: July 8,
2015.

Recommendation: To improve SSA's ability to detect, prevent, and recover potential DI benefit
overpayments due to the concurrent receipt of Federal Employees' Compensation Act (FECA)
benefits, the Commissioner of Social Security should, in accordance with OMB guidance,
compare the costs and benefits of alternatives to SSA's current approach for reducing the
potential for overpayments that result from the concurrent receipt of FECA benefits, which relies
on beneficiaries to self-report any FECA benefits they receive. These alternatives could include,
among others, routinely matching Department of Labor’s (DOL) FECA program data with DI
program data to detect potential DI overpayments.
Recommendation: To improve SSA's ability to detect, prevent, and recover potential DI benefit
overpayments due to the concurrent receipt of FECA benefits, the Commissioner of Social
Security should strengthen internal controls designed to prevent DI overpayments due to the
concurrent receipt of FECA benefits by implementing the alternative that provides the greatest
net benefits.
Actions Needed: SSA agreed with these recommendations. To implement these
recommendations, SSA needs to fully implement its plans to use FECA data to reduce DI
benefits in accordance with federal law, or implement an alternative approach that provides
greater net benefits.

Director: Seto Bagdoyan, Forensic Audits and Investigative Service
Contact information: BagdoyanS@gao.gov, (202) 512-6722


Disability Insurance: SSA Could Do More to Prevent Overpayments or Incorrect Waivers to
Beneficiaries. GAO-16-34. Washington, D.C.: October 29, 2015.

Recommendation: To improve compliance with waiver policies, SSA should develop a
timetable for implementing updates to its Debt Management System to: (a) align system
controls with SSA policy, so that waivers over $1,000 cannot be administratively waived; and (b)
ensure that evidence supporting waiver decisions is sufficiently maintained to allow for
subsequent monitoring and oversight.

Actions Needed: SSA agreed with this recommendation. In January 2019, SSA reported that it
expects to put debt management system controls in place in fiscal year 2020. This is part of a
multi-year project that will include functionality to ensure technicians cannot administratively
waive overpayments over $1,000. However, until SSA finalizes changes to its debt management
system to align with policy, SSA lacks assurance that staff will appropriately process waivers
greater than $1,000.

Director: Elizabeth Curda, Education, Workforce, and Income Security
Contact information: CurdaE@gao.gov, (202) 512-4040



Page 4                       GAO-19-394SP Social Security Administration Priority Recommendations
Increase Overpayment Recovery

Disability Insurance: SSA Needs to Better Track Efforts and Evaluate Options to Recover Debt
and Deter Potential Fraud. GAO-16-331. Washington, D.C.: April 13, 2016.

Recommendation: To ensure effective and appropriate recovery of DI overpayments and
administration of penalties and sanctions, the Acting Commissioner of the Social Security
Administration should adjust the minimum withholding rate to 10 percent of monthly DI benefits
to allow quicker recovery of debt.

Actions Needed: SSA agreed with this recommendation. SSA needs to increase the amount of
DI overpayments it recovers by adjusting its minimum benefit withholding rate from $10 per
month to 10 percent of monthly benefits. We reported that this change would result in an
additional $276 million in overpayment debt recovered over a 5-year period.

Director: Elizabeth Curda, Education, Workforce, and Income Security
Contact information: CurdaE@gao.gov, (202) 512-4040




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Page 5                       GAO-19-394SP Social Security Administration Priority Recommendations
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