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Johnson Opening Statement: The Financial Risk of Returning to Work

June 16, 2015

WASHINGTON — Today, House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (R-TX) delivered the following opening statement during a hearing on the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) management of earnings reports from disability beneficiaries trying to go back to work.

“Earlier this year at our first subcommittee hearing, I made a commitment to the disability community to make this program work better and to promote opportunity for those who want and can return to work.

“In talking with the disability community what I often hear is that in order to make this program work better and take away some of the fear—the reluctance—of those trying to return to work, Congress must do something about overpayments.

“Now overpayments happen when Social Security pays a beneficiary too much- sometimes through no fault of the individual. I bet that all of our offices have had to work with folks who experience overpayments. And these stories tend to spread like wildfire throughout communities. Why would you try to return to work when you hear of others who have done it and yet end up owing thousands of dollars to Social Security due to overpaid benefits?

“Today we will hear from the Social Security Administration and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) about how the complexity of the disability program hurts both beneficiaries and taxpayers. According to GAO’s testimony, more than half of overpayments in the last 10 years were due to work activity. That’s a symptom of a broken system.

“The leading cause of overpayments in the Disability Insurance program is due to the complex work rules, which are difficult and costly to administer. And the end result is bad for individuals with disabilities and taxpayers.

“Just take a look at this chart Social Security provided up. No wonder beneficiaries can’t make heads or tails of this system. This is what the folks who want to work have to go through so they don’t face financial risk down the road.

“Individuals are responsible for reporting their wages to Social Security so that benefits can be properly adjusted. Unfortunately the system for reporting wages is not user friendly for the worker and unreliable.

“For those who try to return to work, beneficiaries simply don’t have an easy way to report their earnings. They must go in person to a field office, talk to someone on the phone, or mail in proof of earnings. Yet in the Supplemental Security Income program, Social Security actually has modern options for wage reporting, including a smart phone app. Social Security needs to find ways to make reporting earnings easy for everyone.

“For those people who try to do the right thing and report their earnings, they can still face overpayments. The program is simply so complicated that it can take Social Security several months to make sure a person’s benefit check is correct.

“Right now the reality is that Social Security sends the wrong message—if you go back to work, you may get hit with a major overpayment bill from Social Security through no fault of your own. That’s wrong. We need to put an end to that.

“We need to make sure that the disability system encourages people to work and makes it easy as possible for them to do so. We can’t have a system that punishes them for doing so. I’s time to do better for individuals with disabilities.

“I thank our witnesses for being here today and look forward to their testimony.”