SSA’s representative payee program, which provides financial management for Social Security beneficiaries who are incapable of handling their payments, requires close monitoring and oversight, according to Congressional leaders.
Congress is particularly concerned with the health and well-being of Social Security beneficiaries in need of payees to manage their benefits. The House Ways and Means Subcommittees on Social Security and Oversight recently held two joint hearings on the payee program, discussing program issues with SSA, the OIG, and special-interest groups. The hearings reviewed how SSA determines if a beneficiary needs a payee, and how SSA selects payees and monitors payee performance.
Acting Inspector General Gale Stallworth Stone testified at both hearings in February and March. At the March hearing, Stone noted that about 6 million payees serve 8 million Social Security beneficiaries. While the vast majority of those payees properly manage beneficiary funds, the threat of payee misuse remains, she said.
“SSA has many service responsibilities, but it must prioritize careful administration and monitoring of the payee program,” Stone said.
Florida Payee Misused $1 Million in Benefits
Just last week, a judge sentenced a Florida woman to 33 months in prison for misusing more than $1 million in Social Security and Medicaid benefits intended for residents of assisted-living facilities the woman operated.
According to reports, the woman opened a facility near Tampa, Florida in 2008 for the elderly and mentally ill. Many of the facility’s residents received Social Security and Medicaid, so the woman served as their payee and pledged to receive and manage the government benefits on her residents’ behalf.
However, a Florida health care agency closed the facility in 2011 after the agency determined the woman did not provide the residents a safe and sanitary living environment. The agency found the facility’s residents were confused and hungry, while bedbugs and roaches infested the residence. The woman settled with the State of Florida in October 2011 and agreed to not own or operate an assisted-living facility for five years.
New Facility Name, Same Poor Conditions
However, not long after the woman settled with the state, she reportedly changed the facility’s name and applied for a license to operate using another person’s identity.
She reopened, and she again housed beneficiaries who were mostly mentally ill adults. Unfortunately, she again did not provide the residents a safe and healthy living situation. By April 2013, the State of Florida shut down the woman’s operation a second time; the state found residents did not have necessary food and medication, the facility did not have a heating/cooling system, and rodents and trash filled the residence.
The Health and Human Services OIG contacted us in 2015 to assist in an investigation of the woman. The investigation determined that, during her time operating the facilities, she misused government benefits intended for the care and housing of her residents. She reportedly used the funds to make cash withdrawals and pay credit card bills, car payments, and rent. Because of the investigation, she pled guilty in November 2016 before her recent sentencing.
Payee Fraud a Priority Issue
As the Acting Inspector General told Congress, we make every effort to seek prosecution against payees who misuse government funds and neglect their responsibilities to serve beneficiaries in need. Last year, our investigative efforts led to 180 convictions related to payee fraud and about $10 million in monetary accomplishments, including restitution and SSA recoveries.
Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Vern Buchanan, a Florida Congressman, emphasized the critical need to monitor payees and to identify and reduce payee fraud.
“Vulnerable seniors who can no longer manage their own benefits should not become victims of fraud,” Buchanan said before the March hearing. “We need to protect our loved ones.”
If you suspect a representative payee of fraud or beneficiary abuse, contact the OIG at https://oig.ssa.gov/report.