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Social Security Disability Benefits: Agency Could Improve Oversight of Representatives Providing Disability Advocacy Services

GAO-15-62 Published: Dec 03, 2014. Publicly Released: Jan 05, 2015.
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What GAO Found

Little is known about the extent to which states are contracting with private organizations to help individuals who receive state or county assistance apply for federal disability programs. Representatives from these private organizations help individuals apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Disability Insurance (DI) from the Social Security Administration (SSA). Available evidence suggests that this practice—known as SSI/DI advocacy—accounts for a small proportion of federal disability claims. Using a variety of methods, including interviewing stakeholders, GAO identified 16 states with some type of SSI/DI advocacy contract in 2014. In addition, GAO analyzed a sample of 2010 claims nationwide and estimated that such contracts accounted for about 5 percent of initial disability claims with nonattorney representatives, or about 1 percent of all initial disability claims. Representatives working under contract to other third parties, such as private insurers and hospitals, accounted for an estimated 30 percent of initial disability claims with nonattorney representatives.

Three selected sites represented different approaches to SSI/DI advocacy, but were similar in many respects. For example, Minnesota contracted with 55 nonprofit and for-profit organizations, while Hawaii and Westchester County, New York, each had a single contractor: a legal aid organization, and a for-profit company, respectively. At the same time, all three sites targeted recipients of similar state and county programs, such as General Assistance, and generally paid contractors only for approved disability claims, among other similarities.

Key Stakeholders Involved with Social Security Disability Advocacy

Key Stakeholders Involved with Social Security Disability Advocacy

SSA has controls to ensure representatives follow program rules and regulations, but these controls are not specific to those working under contract to states or other third parties and may not be sufficient to assess risks and prevent overpayments—known by SSA as fee violations. Specifically:

Despite the growing involvement of different types of representatives in the initial disability determination process, SSA does not have readily available data on representatives, particularly those it does not pay directly. This hinders SSA's ability to identify trends and assess risks, a key internal control. SSA's existing data are limited and are not used to provide staff with routine information, such as the number of claims associated with a given representative. SSA has plans to combine data on representatives across systems, but these plans are still in development.

SSA does not coordinate its direct payments to representatives with states or other third parties that might also pay representatives, a risk GAO identified in 2007. In cases involving SSI/DI advocacy contracts, a representative may be able to collect payments from both the state and from SSA, potentially resulting in an overpayment—a violation of SSA's regulations.

Why GAO Did This Study

For years, states and counties have helped individuals who receive state or county assistance apply for federal disability programs. Federal benefits can be more generous, and moving individuals to these programs can allow states and counties to reduce their benefit costs or reinvest savings into other services. Some states have hired private organizations to help individuals apply for federal benefits, but the extent and nature of this practice is not well-known. GAO was asked to study this practice.

This report examines (1) what is known about the extent to which states have SSI/DI advocacy contracts with private organizations, (2) how SSI/DI advocacy practices compare across selected sites, and (3) the key controls SSA has to ensure these organizations follow SSI/DI program rules and regulations. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and program rules; selected three sites to illustrate different contracting approaches; reviewed prior studies, including one by SSA's Office of the Inspector General with a generalizable sample of disability claim files; and interviewed SSA, state, and county officials and contractors.


GAO recommends that SSA (1) consider ways to improve data and identify and monitor trends related to representatives, and (2) enhance coordination with states, counties, and other third parties with the goal of improving oversight and preventing potential overpayments. SSA partially agreed with our recommendations and noted that it may consider additional actions related to representatives.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration As part of initiatives currently under way to improve agency information on claims with appointed representatives and detect potential fraud associated with representatives, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should consider actions to provide more timely access to data on representatives and enhance mechanisms for identifying and monitoring trends and patterns related to representation, particularly trends that may present risks to program integrity. Specifically, SSA could (1) Identify additional data elements, or amendments to current data collection efforts, to improve information on all appointed representatives, including those under contract with states and other third parties; (2) Implement necessary policy changes to ensure these data are collected. This could include enhancing technical systems needed to finalize SSA's 2008 proposed rules that would recognize organizations as representatives; and (3) Establish mechanisms for routine data extracts and reports on claims with representatives.
Closed – Implemented
To address this recommendation, SSA adopted a new data collection system that contains mechanisms to identify trends and patterns related to appointed representatives and published a new form on representative fee arrangements. Specifically, SSA implemented a new application, called Registration, Appointment and Services for Representatives (RASR), which aims to register all appointed representatives and enhance SSA's ability to collect and analyze timely data on appointed representatives. The application contains a query feature that allows SSA to analyze trends on appointed representatives, such as caseload size. The system can also be used to more efficiently stop direct payments to disqualified representatives, which according to SSA, required involvement of a number of different SSA components, significant time, and multiple manual actions prior to the adoption of RASR. RASR was released in March 2018, and SSA reported that it has since processed over a million appointments of representatives, registered new representatives, and compiled new data. In addition, SSA published a new form SSA-1693. This form documents the claimants' and their representatives' fee arrangement and collects information on payments to representatives made by third parties, such as states. According to SSA, this form, while optional, helps ensure that the claimant is aware of the total fees due, including payments from the claimant and a third party.
Social Security Administration To address risks associated with potential overpayments to representatives and protect claimant benefits, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should take steps to enhance coordination with states, counties, and other third parties with the goal of improving oversight and preventing and identifying potential overpayments. This coordination could be conducted in a cost-effective manner, such as issuing guidance to states and other third parties on vulnerabilities for overpayment; sharing best practices on how to prevent overpayments; or considering the costs and benefits, including any privacy and security concerns, of providing third parties controlled access to portions of the eFolder to facilitate the detection of potential overpayments.
Closed – Implemented
SSA can reduce the risk of overpayments to representatives by improving its process for tracking representatives' fees and sharing information on how to prevent overpayments. To help improve fee disclosure and identify potential overpayments to representatives, SSA took several steps, including developing a key form regarding fees and updating the guidance on fee disclosure it provides to representatives and others on its website. Specifically, SSA's new form SSA-1693, published in December 2018, collects information on third-party payments on the fee petition and fee agreement forms, when submitted. SSA stated that the agency factors this information into its decisions about whether and how much to authorize in fees. According to SSA, disclosure and approval of any third-party fees, with potential adjustment of the fee, by both the claimant and SSA should help prevent excessive fees (overpayments to representatives). As of August 2019, SSA also posted information on the form on its website and a best practices guide to clarify that representatives should disclose any third-party payments in advance to ensure that SSA approves all fees paid to representatives. SSA acknowledged that this approach does not prevent representatives from receiving third-party fees, but stated that it improves the disclosure of fees, which allows for adjustments by the claimant or SSA if appropriate. In addition, if a representative fails to disclose information, or knowingly and deliberately discloses wrong information, SSA can investigate and consider imposing sanctions under SSA's professional conduct rules.

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