Social Security Administration:

Additional Actions Needed to Prevent Improper Benefit Payments under Social Security Protection Act

GAO-06-196: Published: Apr 28, 2006. Publicly Released: May 30, 2006.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
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Continued high levels of unauthorized immigrant workers in the United States have fostered concerns about whether they should be eligible for Social Security benefits. Until recently, the Social Security Administration (SSA) allowed noncitizens to collect benefits, regardless of their work authorization status, provided that they met certain legal presence requirements. However, in March 2004, Congress passed the Social Security Protection Act, which under Section 211, requires that noncitizens assigned a Social Security number (SSN) after 2003 have work authorization from current or past qualifying work to collect benefits. This report describes (1) the steps SSA has taken to implement Section 211 and how effective SSA's policies and procedures are in preventing improper benefit decisions, and (2) how Section 211 has affected the payment of benefits to unauthorized workers.

SSA has issued guidance and provided training to assist staff in processing benefit claims under Section 211, but the absence of certain internal controls has allowed some errors to go undetected. SSA issued detailed guidance in August 2004 and subsequently provided staff with training on the law, which some SSA field offices supplemented with additional training. Although SSA's policies and procedures were fairly detailed, GAO found several incorrect claims determinations and a lack of internal review for preventing them. With regard to the provisions of Section 211, GAO found that SSA improperly approved 17 of the 19 claims that involved noncitizen workers who had been issued SSNs after 2003 and who lacked required work authorization. GAO also found that 1 of the 41 claims that SSA disapproved was improper. SSA officials stated that the improper determinations were likely due to staff's unfamiliarity with the new requirements. In addition, GAO found that letters sent to claimants informing them of disapproval decisions did not always contain all required information. Because Section 211 does not apply to noncitizens who were assigned SSNs before 2004, few noncitizens have been affected by the law thus far. Only 41 (less than 1 percent) of the approximately 72,000 noncitizen-related claims SSA disapproved during 2004 and 2005 were due to Section 211. It is likely that the number of disapprovals based on the law will grow as more unauthorized workers file for benefits in coming years. However, opportunities may exist for certain noncitizens who receive their SSNs after 2003 to collect benefits without current work authorization. For example, noncitizens who are issued SSNs under temporary work visas may be able to engage in work not authorized under their visas and subsequently claim benefits based on that work. Although SSA officials told GAO the likelihood of this occurring was low, the SSA Inspector General reported in 2005 that a significant number of temporary visa holders overstayed their visas.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2007, SSA stated that it had implemented a new edit check into the Disability Insured Status Calculator Online (DISCO) program, an automated screening tool used by Claims Representatives, Service Representatives and Teleservice Representatives to screen for whether an individual meets the disability insured status. SSA also stated that an alert is now generated when the Social Security number (SSN) issue date is January 1, 2004, or later, on the first iteration of the NUMIDENT record for the original SSN. In addition, SSA stated that the alert also generates a copy of claims processing procedures relating to Section 211 of the Social Security Protection Act (SSPA) for the adjudicator to review and apply when processing the claims. The controls that SSA has put in place may help to identify disability claims that do not qualify under SSPA.

    Recommendation: To assure proper benefit eligibility determinations and appeals processes, the Commissioner of Social Security should establish a control to identify potentially erroneous claims decisions for unauthorized workers assigned SSNs after 2003, such as an electronic edit check to identify such claims.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In March 2007, SSA stated that the agency drafted a regulation and was updating the claims processing procedures relating to Section 211 of the SSPA. Once these procedures are completed, SSA stated that it would include information on processing benefit claims under Section 211 in monthly interactive video training provided to SSA field offices. SSA stated that it expected to have these updates completed in fiscal year 2007. In its August 2009 update, SSA stated that the Office of Regulations sent the regulation to the Commissioner for review to determine the release date, and expected to have the regulation published and the updates to the processing procedures for Section 211 of the SSPA completed in 2009. As of May 2010, the Commissioner had placed this regulation on an indefinite hold and the agency has no anticipated release date.

    Recommendation: To assure proper benefit eligibility determinations and appeals processes, the Commissioner of Social Security should provide enhanced training to staff to assist them in properly processing claims covered by Section 211.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to SSA, on September 27, 2006, the agency updated its procedures relating to Section 211 of the SSPA and instructed staff to use a standardized disallowance notice found in the Distributed Online Correspondence System. The standardized notice includes an optional paragraph that provides standardized language describing the reason for the denial and standardized appeals language.

    Recommendation: To assure proper benefit eligibility determinations and appeals processes, the Commissioner of Social Security should develop a standardized format for disapproval letters to ensure that staff provide applicants with all required information regarding the disapproval decision.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration


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