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Highlights

The Social Security Protection Act of 2004 temporarily expanded the practice of paying representatives' fees directly out of a claimant's benefits. This practice, known as fee withholding, was previously available only to attorneys in Disability Insurance (DI) cases. It has been extended to attorneys in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cases, and to nonattorneys--who meet eligibility criteria--in both DI and SSI cases. The act also mandated that GAO examine (1) the professional experience of disability representatives, (2) how judges and claimants view representatives' performance, (3) how the implementation of fee withholding for nonattorneys has been viewed, and (4) the impact of fee withholding in the SSI program. GAO surveyed representatives and judges, and interviewed claimants and Social Security Administration (SSA), state, and other officials.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration 1. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should monitor the effectiveness of the nonattorney eligibility criteria in continuing to ensure that only well-qualified representatives receive access to fee withholding, and if necessary adjust the experience standard or other criteria.
Closed - Implemented
In previous updates, the Social Security Administration (SSA) said it agreed with this recommendation, and planned to take action to implement it when and if fee withholding were permanently extended to non-attorneys. The extension of fee withholding to qualified non-attorneys was made permanent by Congress in February of 2010 (Public Law 111-142). As a result, the SSA recently re-assessed its eligibility criteria for non-attorneys who want to qualify for fee withholding and is developing new regulations regarding the eligibility criteria.
Social Security Administration 2. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should assess the extent to which representatives collect more than their authorized fee through a combination of state payments and fee withholding, and if necessary identify and implement cost-effective solutions to ensure that representatives either are not paid more than their authorized fee or return anything they receive in excess of their authorized fee.
Closed - Not Implemented
The Social Security Administration (SSA) agreed with the recommendation and noted that, if fee withholding in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) claims were made permanent, it would work with states to ensure that representatives do not receive fees in excess of that approved by SSA for services performed before SSA. In February 2010, Congress made permanent the extension of fee withholding to representatives of SSI claimants (Public Law 111-142). In April 2012, SSA that because the environment for representatives of SSI claimants changed since the issuance of our report, the agency no longer sees the need to implement this recommendation.
Social Security Administration 3. The Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should continue to explore cost-effective changes that would address SSI benefit payment delays related to fee withholding in cases where recipients receive both SSI and DI benefits.
Closed - Implemented
On September 29, 2008, the Social Security Administration (SSA) implemented the Title XVI (Supplemental Security Income) Estimated Fee Withholding process. SSA now withholds up to 25 percent of a claimant's past due title XVI payments for direct payment of representative fees at the time it adjudicates the claim. Therefore, the agency can pay the remaining 75 percent of the claimant's retroactive benefits immediately. SSA officials report that there are now substantially fewer complaints from claimants about title XVI payment delays.

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