Social Security’s grab to get back overpayments has to stop, Terry Savage says

The syndicated financial columnist wants to get Social Security to end its practice of halting benefits in overpayment disputes. And that’s just a start.

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Terry Savage.

Terry Savage.

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I was remiss in my latest column in not giving syndicated financial columnist Terry Savage a shout-out for her crusade to stop Social Security from ruining lives.

Savage, a financial guru, and Laurence Kotlikoff, an economist and author of “Get What’s Yours from Social Security,” were featured on a recent CBS news segment on Social Security going after recipients who’d been overpaid to get the money back.

There’s something patently unfair about government agencies aggressively going after folks on a fixed income for overpayments when they were the ones who miscalculated the benefits.

Savage, who teamed with Kotlikoff to write the book “Social Security Horror Stories: Protect Yourself from the System and Avoid Clawbacks,” sees this as an all-hands-on-deck moment.

“We are asking [people] to post their horror stories on our new website: www.SocialSecurityHorrorStories.com,” Savage told me. “This is a lot different than the future financial issues for Social Security. This is about the tactics they are using on our country’s elderly and disabled right now.

“If we can all get on the same team and arouse enough outrage, maybe we can get a fix — a stop to all clawbacks and a restoration of benefits — before year-end.”

This is a problem that has struck a chord. But is it loud enough to move Congress to take action?

Several readers shared their views in response to my column. I was surprised at the lack of outrage over families being asked to pay tens of thousands of dollars — in 30 days.

One reader, Jim D., explained why we get increases in the first place: “They refigure your annuity each year and make adjustments. I have been getting increases for over 15 years. It’s nice to know they actually keep track.”

I hope he’s right because the biggest worry for some seniors is a catastrophic financial event.

Pamela M., a former Social Security Administration employee, took issue with my concerns about receiving so many “correction” letters from Social Security notifying me of a benefit increase.

“I am surprised you didn’t run your article by a trusted SSA official,” she wrote. “You have probably upset a lot of old people, plus eroded their trust in government bureaucracy.

“The bureaucracy isn’t out to ‘get’ poor old people. The fourth estate should try to help the old people in times of distress instead of raising the anxiety and lowering the trust of a whole class of people.”

Someone needed to sound the alarm, and Savage’s appearance with Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” spotlighted a mess that others couldn’t see.

But where is the empathy for seniors and disabled persons whose benefits were significantly reduced or stopped because of an overpayment?

Carol B., another reader, wrote that she appreciates that someone is tackling this problem: “I’m so glad you wrote about the ‘60 Minutes’ segment about SS overpayment mistakes! That episode unnerved me!”

To try to fix this, Savage wants people to go to her website and contact their representatives in Congress.

She wants the Social Security Administration to stop the clawbacks and reinstate benefits immediately. Because Medicare Part B is deducted from the benefit amount, people who lost their benefits also lost their health insurance.

She wants an 18-month limit on clawbacks.

And she thinks independent hearings should be held to present the facts like they would be presented in court.

Savage says the website is key to getting Congress to act.

People “can post their horror stories where [members] of both parties can see what Social Security is doing to our elderly and our disabled,”

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