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SSA Representative Payee Program: Addressing Long-Term Challenges Requires a More Strategic Approach

GAO-13-473 Published: May 29, 2013. Publicly Released: Jun 05, 2013.
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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration (SSA) struggles to effectively administer its Representative Payee Program, despite steps taken to address its challenges in identifying, selecting, and monitoring representative payees. For example, due to increasing workloads and staff attrition, SSA field office managers in some offices said they sometimes have to perform payee program duties that lower level staff typically handle. SSA has also experienced an increasing number of beneficiaries who may not have a suitable payee available. In an effort to address this challenge, SSA hosted a webinar to recruit additional payees. However, SSA officials said this effort did not result in the addition of any new payees. SSA also faces challenges ensuring that payees who are selected are suitable for the task. To help address this challenge, SSA implemented a pilot program in its Philadelphia region to screen and bar payee applicants who have been convicted of certain crimes. The pilot relies on self-reported information from payee applicants, but SSA plans to screen applicants by accessing a commercial database that contains state-level criminal information. This database, however, does not contain information from every state and it is not clear how SSA will address this limitation. SSA also faces challenges monitoring payees' use of beneficiaries' SSA funds--a time-consuming process. SSA developed an electronic accounting process that allows payees to submit reports online, which saves SSA time on handling the reports and scanning paper reports. However, it does not lessen the need for SSA staff to review some of these reports. SSA has also taken other steps to improve the administration of the program, but the SSA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) nonetheless continues to identify the program as a major SSA management challenge.

Although changing demographics and resource constraints will challenge the future administration of the Representative Payee Program, SSA has done little to position itself for the long term. The projected growth in the aged population, as well as the incidence of individuals with dementia, will have implications for the program, as SSA will have to spend more resources finding and monitoring payees. These challenges are exacerbated by staff and resource constraints, which could make SSA less able to identify and address payee benefit misuse. Some of the steps SSA has taken align with goals in the agency's Strategic Plan. For example, SSA's piloting of a new payee screening and selection process is an effort to better protect the program from fraud, waste, and abuse--one of the objectives included in the plan. Nonetheless, SSA does not plan to assess whether the pilot actually reduces the incidence of benefit misuse in the long run. Further, SSA has not projected the future need for payees, the likely characteristics of beneficiaries, or the resources needed to administer the program. Others have identified a range of options that could help SSA address its long-term challenges by increasing its pool of payees and better targeting its monitoring practices. Experts and stakeholders we interviewed identified trade-offs for each of these options, citing the need to balance the potential benefit of reducing SSA's workloads with the possible increased risk of benefit misuse by payees. SSA has considered some options, but it has not fully assessed and compared the potential benefits and feasibility of implementing these options.

Why GAO Did This Study

Representative Payees—persons who SSA staff appoint to manage Social Security benefits for those unable to do so for themselves—play an important role in ensuring that beneficiary needs are met. In fiscal year 2012, about 5.9 million payees managed $72 billion in annual benefits for nearly 8.4 million beneficiaries, a number that is likely to grow as the population ages. Congress and others have expressed concerns that SSA may not be well positioned to administer the Representative Payee Program, as currently structured, in the future. This report examines (1) administrative challenges facing the program and steps SSA has taken to address them and (2) long-term challenges and actions SSA has taken or could take to address them.

To answer these objectives, GAO reviewed relevant research, policies, federal laws and regulations, and other documents. GAO interviewed SSA officials and other parties, and visited the Philadelphia Regional Office. GAO also reviewed program trend data and studies on challenges associated with an aging population. GAO reviewed options SSA could consider to address program challenges and conducted interviews to identify the strengths and weaknesses of these options.


GAO recommends that SSA (1) evaluate the effectiveness of its criminal bar pilot, (2) estimate long-term program needs, and (3) develop a long-term strategy for addressing challenges that includes assessing options to streamline the program. SSA agreed with all three recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration To better position itself to address its growing challenges with administering the program while protecting individuals' benefits from misuse, the Commissioner of SSA should direct the Deputy Commissioner, Retirement and Disability Policy, to work with relevant SSA offices to systematically evaluate the effectiveness of SSA's criminal bar pilot to help ensure that it meets its intended purpose of preventing misuse.
Closed – Implemented
SSA reported that it was developing criteria to measure whether the criminal bar pilot is effectively preventing misuse and that the agency is finding suitable payees before implementing the pilot nationwide. On September 27, 2013, the Office of Quality Improvement (OQI) completed an evaluation of this pilot. OQI examined the use of PayeeWiz, an electronic tool that field office (FO) staff use to complete background checks on certain payee applicants. OQI found that FO staff were able to successfully bar payee applicants convicted of certain serious crimes and that PayeeWiz is an effective tool in obtaining criminal background information.
Social Security Administration To better position itself to address its growing challenges with administering the program while protecting individuals' benefits from misuse, the Commissioner of SSA should direct the Deputy Commissioner, Retirement and Disability Policy, to work with relevant SSA offices to estimate the long-term increase in the number of individuals who will need a payee and their demographic characteristics, as well as the resources that will be needed to meet this increase in demand.
Closed – Implemented
In 2015, SSA released a study estimating the number of adult beneficiaries likely to need a representative payee over the long-term. The study found that there will likely be an increase in this number from 2.94 million in 2013 to 3.27 million by 2025 and to 3.56 million by 2035. This study also identified the type of payees, such as family or nonfamily members, that will likely be needed to meet the projected demand. The study concluded that SSA should be prepared to recruit payees in numbers sufficient to meet the future demand, and to devote the resources necessary to monitor payees and prevent their misuse of benefits. It also highlights some of the strategies that the agency is taking and plans to take to address the growing needs, including a pilot program to recruit payees and enhanced monitoring strategies.
Social Security Administration To better position itself to address its growing challenges with administering the program while protecting individuals' benefits from misuse, the Commissioner of SSA should direct the Deputy Commissioner, Retirement and Disability Policy, to work with relevant SSA offices to develop a long-term strategy for addressing these challenges that includes developing and testing a range of alternatives that could streamline program processing to determine and compare their feasibility and their potential impact on processing times and risk of benefit misuse.
Closed – Implemented
Since our report, SSA has taken several steps to address our recommendation. In June 2013, SSA formed an inter-agency strategic team to conduct a comprehensive review of the representative payee program and develop recommendations. The strategic team completed its work in December 2013 and the agency moved forward with several initiatives over the past several years. For example, SSA implemented the Criminal Bar Policy nationally on February 28, 2014, which strengthens its representative payee selection process. At the request of SSA, the Administrative Conference of the United States (ACUS) conducted a study on guardianship and conservatorship laws and court practices concerning selection, monitoring, and sanctioning of legal guardians. ACUS published the study in January 2015, and SSA said that it is currently using the findings to make improvements to leverage the work of state courts in its capability determinations and selection of payees. SSA also reported completing its issuance of data sharing guidance from its collaboration with the Veterans Administration and in June 2015 the agency updated its Program Operating Manual System instructions at GN 00602.100 Exchange of Information with the Department of Veterans Affairs' Representative Payee's and Fiduciary's Improper Use or Misuse of Benefits to implement an improved business process with the Veterans Administration that facilitates the sharing of misuse information between our two agencies. In FY 2016, SSA reported that it completed three outreach pilots to assist in increasing the pool of available payees and is using the best practices from the pilots to develop a new process for expediting referrals of well-qualified payees and to inform the agency's approach for engaging with potential representative payees.

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Social security benefitsStrategic planningDementiaCrimesAgency reportsDatabasesElectronic data processingFederal lawMonitoringWastesFederal social security programsProgram managementReporting requirementsElderly personsPopulation growthEmployeesStaff utilizationProgram abusesUse of fundsSocial security beneficiariesAttrition ratesFraud, Waste and AbuseLaws and regulation