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W&M Members Examine Challenges Facing Social Security’s Representative Payee Program

February 07, 2017

The Social Security and Oversight Subcommittees, chaired by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) and Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-FL), today held the first in a two-part joint hearing series examining Social Security’s Representative Payee Program, which helps approximately 8 million beneficiaries manage their benefits. As Members and witnesses discussed today, many concerns have been raised by experts and government watchdogs about how the Social Security Administration (SSA) operates the program.

Kicking off the series today, Chairman Johnson laid out three questions that he hopes to answer:

  • “Is Social Security’s representative payee program working the way it should?
  • How is Social Security improving the program to meet today’s challenges?
  • Are there changes we should make to ensure that Social Security provides the service Americans expect and deserve?”

Today’s hearing started to answer these questions, focusing on the process the SSA uses to determine who needs help managing their benefits. As witnesses discussed, the process needs improvement. For example, SSA employees fail to document how they decide who needs a representative payee. At the same time, the SSA doesn’t have a way to identify beneficiaries whose capabilities change over time and ultimately may require a representative payee.

Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) asked Marianna LaCanfora, the Acting Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy, how the SSA is able to determine if someone’s ability to manage their benefits changes as they age. Ms. LaCanfora acknowledged that since the SSA does not regularly interact with people once they claim retirement benefits, the Agency does not have a way to know if someone may later need help managing their benefits:

We do not have a comprehensive process for tracking a person’s capability over time. We rely on individuals and their families to report to us.”

Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-IN) also expressed her concerns that the SSA does not receive accurate and clear evidence before determining if somebody needs help. She said:

“For instance, the medical evidence form doesn’t ask how often a provider sees a beneficiary or if those interactions give the provider an adequate window into their financial capability. This concerns me because we’re not just talking about assessing the fitness of a person to make decisions for themselves, we’re also talking about a decision that affects their dignity. It’s alarming to me that such a consequential decision could be determined without high quality evidence that can be verified as relevant and factual, especially when it comes to vulnerable populations that could be targeted—and probably are—by bad actors.”

Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) asked Ms. LaCanfora what role supervisors in Social Security field offices play in overseeing the capability-determination process. Ms. LaConfora acknowledged that because supervisors do not sign off on every decision, the agency is working to improve its evidence-based decision-making process:

“The problem that we have is that our IG, our own quality reviews pointed out—and rightfully so—that the documentation around those decisions is lacking. That, right now, is job number one to ensure that the documentation is done and that we’re complying with policy.”

Ways and Means will continue to take a close look at the SSA’s representative payee program. As Chairman Johnson said:

“We all need to work together to make sure the representative payee program meets today’s challenges. It’s too important not to get it right.”

Chairman Buchanan agreed, promising: “We must keep working to find solutions.”