Social Security Commissioner says he has ordered changes over ‘clawback cruelty’

ATLANTA — Help is coming for potentially millions of Americans after a Channel 2 Action News investigation gets results.

The new head of Social Security told Congress on Wednesday that he is ordering changes to how the agency handles billions of dollars in overpayments it has been forcing people to pay back.

We called our series of investigations “Overpayment Outrage.” In testimony before Congress, the head of Social Security called it “an injustice.”

Social Security Commissioner Martin O’Malley called the actions of his own agency “brutal” as he vowed to correct some of the problems we uncovered.

“Today I am able to announce that we are no longer going to have that clawback cruelty,” O’Malley told the US Senate Committee on Aging.

At the senate hearing, O’Malley announced four changes to how the agency handles overpayments.

“To address the injustice that we do to real people who through no fault of their own find themselves to have 100% of their benefits that they live on intercepted,” O’Malley said.

Among the changes, the agency will default to taking only 10% of a person’s monthly check when they fail to respond to an overpayment notice rather than stopping the person’s entire monthly payment.

The agency will also make it easier for people to apply for waivers to have the overpayment bills forgiven.


During our months-long Channel 2 Action News investigation in partnership with KFF Health News, we’ve heard from more than 500 families who’ve gotten demand letters from the Social Security Administration asking them to pay back thousands -- or even tens of thousands of dollars.

In January, we introduced you to Georgia resident Denise Woods, left homeless after having her benefits cut off with a $58,000 overpayment notice.

She drives to and from Georgia strip malls, truck stops and parking lots looking for a safe place to sleep each night.

“I’s scary. You just don’t know what each day is going to bring,” Woods said.

Georgia U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock brought Denise’s story to the Senate hearing.

“People like Denise and others shouldn’t be penalized for situations they did not create,” Warnock said in the hearing.

O’Malley told Channel 2 Action News after the hearing they are also researching how to put a statute of limitations on clawbacks. That’s not finalized yet.

“We recognize that we are not a perfect agency. And when we make a mistake, we need to do a better job of addressing it in a more timely and more humane way,” O’Malley said.

All the changes will not happen automatically. People dealing with an overpayment may need to reach back out to the agency to figure out new terms.