Supplemental Security Income:

Action Needed on Long-Standing Problems Affecting Program Integrity

HEHS-98-158: Published: Sep 14, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 1998.

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GAO provided information on the management problems associated with the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program.

GAO noted that: (1) to a great extent, SSA's inability to address its most significant long-standing SSI problems is attributable to two underlying causes: (a) an organizational culture or value system that places a greater priority on processing and paying claims than on controlling program expenditures; and (b) a management approach characterized by SSA's reluctance to fulfill its policy development and planning role in advance of major program crises; (2) SSA's organizational culture has traditionally valued quickly processing and paying SSI benefit claims more highly than controlling program expenditures by ensuring that only eligible individuals receive benefits; (3) other important financial controls such as aggressively pursuing the recovery of overpaid funds and combatting SSI fraud have also often received inadequate attention; (4) SSI problem resolution and program direction have also been hindered by SSA's hesitance to take a leadership role in SSI research and policy development, and its tendency to react to resulting crises through a series of ad hoc initiatives; (5) SSA's management approach was most evident regarding its reluctance to play a leadership role in recent policy debates surrounding SSI eligibility for children and substance abusers, and its failure to devise a comprehensive strategy to help SSI recipients return to work; (6) program direction has been further impaired by SSA's reluctance to develop agencywide plans that adequately focus on the specific characteristics and needs of the SSI program and its recipients; (7) SSA's current plans do not adequately communicate SSI priorities, goals, and objectives to staff; (8) reversing how the SSI program has traditionally operated will require sustained and expanded attention to developing and promoting tighter payment controls, increasing SSA's role in SSI research and policy formulation, and a willingness to define a long-term vision and strategy for improving program performance; (9) recently, SSA has initiated several measures aimed at improving the financial integrity of the SSI program; (10) as required by the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993, SSA also intends to develop a comprehensive SSI Action Plan in fiscal year 1998, which will serve as a blueprint for long-term program operations; and (11) however, such a plan has not yet been developed, and decisive action is needed to ensure that SSA will focus on those program areas that pose the greatest management challenges and that corrective actions will be implemented and sustained over time.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To facilitate a change in SSA's management approach and improve SSI program direction, the Commissioner of Social Security should better utilize SSA's policy development component to address SSI program policies that, for many years, have placed the program at risk of fraud, waste, and mismanagement. This would include, but not be limited to, the development and advancement of legislative proposals aimed at simplifying complex SSI living arrangement and in-kind support and maintenance policies and continuing SSA's sponsorship of legislation restricting the transfer of valuable assets and resources to qualify for SSI benefits.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its comments on GAO's report, SSA acknowledged the need to play a more active policy development role. Accordingly, SSA restructured its research and policy development components to better address GAO's concerns. SSA has also made conducting effective policy development, research, and program evaluation a key agency goal. The newly created Office of Policy has also obtained additional staffing resources. Finally, SSA developed and submitted to Congress its first major SSI legislative proposal that included SSI asset transfer restrictions and other program integrity initiatives. These were incorporated into the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999. SSA also recently analyzed complex SSI living arrangement and in-kind support and maintenance policies, and outlined options for program simplification.

    Recommendation: Revising SSA's organizational culture will likely take several years of sustained effort at the highest levels of the agency. To facilitate such a change, the Commissioner of Social Security should reevaluate SSA's field office work-credit and incentive structure at all levels of the agency and make appropriate revisions to encourage better verification of recipient information and greater staff attention to fraud prevention and detection. For improved accountability, line staff and middle management expectations, as well as senior executive contracts, should include specific requirements and performance measures in this area.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA completed a review of its work measurement systems in June 1999. New requirements were forwarded to its Office of Information Management (OIM), a component responsible for obtaining new data for previously uncounted workloads. SSA now maintains counts on the development and investigation of fraud activities. Fraud activities were also added to District Office Weekly Reports in fiscal year 2001. SSA worked with its Office of Inspector General (OIG) in developing a reporting mechanism to count fraud workloads. Field-initiated fraud development is now counted upon receipt by the OIG. SSA also maintains counts on fraud hotline allegations sent to the field offices for development.

    Recommendation: Revising SSA's organizational culture will likely take several years of sustained effort at the highest levels of the agency. To facilitate such a change, the Commissioner of Social Security should reassess current policies for imposing penalties on recipients who do not report important eligibility information. This may include examining whether current penalty usage is sufficient to deter recipient nonreporting and removing any external or agency-created obstacles to using penalties.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its comments to GAO's report, SSA noted that its recently submitted legislative proposal included several provisions to deter and recover SSI overpayments. Thus, SSA did not believe a review of its current overpayment penalty policies was necessary.

    Recommendation: Revising SSA's organizational culture will likely take several years of sustained effort at the highest levels of the agency. To facilitate such a change, the Commissioner of Social Security should, for recipients who chronically and willfully abuse SSI reporting requirements, seek legislative authority to withhold higher amounts than the current 10-percent maximum.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In its comments to GAO's report, SSA noted that since the average SSI overpayment is about $870, and can be recovered from current SSI recipients in 2 to 3 years, authority to withhold higher amounts of benefits was unnecessary. Consequently, SSA does not intend to implement this recommendation.

    Recommendation: Revising SSA's organizational culture will likely take several years of sustained effort at the highest levels of the agency. To facilitate such a change, the Commissioner of Social Security should sustain efforts to obtain and implement additional SSI overpayment deterrence and debt collection tools commonly available to other means tested programs. These include using credit bureau reporting, collection agencies, intercepts of other state and federal benefit payments, and interest levies to recover more SSI debt.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA submitted a legislative proposal to Congress seeking authority to use credit bureaus, private collection agencies, interest levies, and other tools to strengthen its overpayment collection efforts. The proposal's SSI provisions were incorporated into the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (H.R. 1802), which was signed into law in December 1999. CBO has calculated that, when fully implemented, the Act's SSI proposals will yield about $57 million in additional annual overpayment recoveries. In addition to this legislation, SSA plans to implement various debt collection tools in the next fiscal year.

    Recommendation: Revising SSA's organizational culture will likely take several years of sustained effort at the highest levels of the agency. To facilitate such a change, the Commissioner of Social Security should enhance SSA's ability to verify applicant- and recipient-reported eligibility information and deter overpayments by accelerating efforts to identify more timely and complete sources for verifying SSI financial eligibility information.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA substantially increased the number of financial reviews it conducts to verify recipient financial eligibility. SSA calculated that, in fiscal year (FY) 1999, it collected/prevented $592 million more in SSI overpayments over FY1998 levels. SSA also expanded its use of online state data to obtain real-time recipient financial information, and obtained legislative approval, in 1999, to access applicant/recipient information from state databases and financial institutions to better document assets. In January 2002, SSA also began seizing the title II benefits of former SSI recipients with overpayments, and recently began using a new automated system to identify and recover SSI overpayments that were not carried forward as recipients came on and off the rolls over time. SSA estimates it will recover several hundred dollars in additional overpayment through these two initiatives.

    Recommendation: To facilitate a change in SSA's management approach and improve SSI program direction, the Commissioner of Social Security should move forward in developing an SSI-focused strategy or plan with clearly defined priorities, goals, and performance measures to gauge SSA's progress in addressing its most significant SSI program challenges. This document should be consistent with the Results Act and include specific initiatives, goals, and performance measures aimed at addressing long-standing SSI program problems and facilitating a change in SSA's organizational culture and management approach to the SSI program.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed with the recommendation, and produced its first SSA management report in October 1998, which discussed the need to take aggressive action in four areas: improving overall payment accuracy, increasing continuing disability reviews, combating program fraud, and improving debt collection. The management report also established specific goals to measure the anticipated yearly impact of planned initiatives in each of these areas. In its fiscal year 2000 Annual Performance Plan, SSA also developed revised strategic goals, objectives, and performance measures for the SSI program that address both program management problems and the need to combat fraud and abuse. The plan also includes a separate standalone summary table linking SSA's strategic objectives, performance indicators, and fiscal year 2000 goals. Consistent with the results act criteria, SSA's plan also includes clarifying text that explains how each SSI goal links to accomplishing SSA's strategic objectives.

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