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Brune: No estimates on how bad Social Security fraud is

Original source:

The Washington Post
Stephen Dinan
April 26, 2017

Social Security can’t even give a ballpark estimate for how much fraud there is in the program, a top official admitted to Congress on Wednesday — though he insisted they care about the matter and are working to weed out bogus payments, particularly in disability payments.

Sean Brune, assistant deputy commissioner at the Social Security Administration’s budget office, said they’re trying to become more aware of the problems and looking for new tools to fight back, but said he couldn’t guess at how bad the problem is.

“I do not have a dollar amount of the general amount of fraud,” Mr. Brune told the House Ways and Means Committee.

The $150 billion-a-year disability program has been touched by several massive fraud rings in recent years, including one based in West Virginia and Kentucky that investigators say filed more than 1,700 fraudulent applications, which could cost the government more than $500 million in bogus lifetime benefits.

The government’s comptroller general said Social Security needs to pay more attention to the problem, and needs to figure out where it’s running the biggest risks of fraud.

Mr. Brune said the agency is trying to get there, looking to calculate and manage risks.

“We have some metrics, we just need to improve them,” he said.

Mr. Brune admitted that his agency doesn’t have the power to strip fraudster employees of their pensions — meaning a former Social Security administrative law judge who stands accused of being part of the Kentucky and West Virginia fraud ring will collect a government pension.

“We do not have under current statute authority to revoke his pension,” he said. Still, he said that the former judge is convicted the court can order restitution, meaning his pension could be garnished to cover those costs.

Rep. Tom Rice, a South Carolina Republican who said the former judge is now living in his district, asked if Congress should pass a law to cancel pensions of Social Security employees who abet fraud.

“We’d be happy to talk to you about that,” Mr. Brune said.

Social Security has started a program where it has loaned lawyers out to federal prosecutors’ offices to encourage them to pursue fraud cases.

In the first six months of fiscal year 2017 that program has won 119 guilty pleas from fraudsters, winning pledges of more than $10 million in restitution.

Democrats said that while fraud was a problem, the agency needed to make sure it wasn’t canceling benefits of those who legitimately qualified. They also warned against further budget and staffing cuts at the agency, saying the workload is increasing with the retirement of baby boomers.

Nearly 10 million people collect disability benefits, and the average payment is about $1,170 a month, according to the latest statistics.

The enrollment number has soared over the last two decades, more than doubling during that time. That’s far faster than the growth rate in the population, leaving some analysts to suspect fraud or other dubious reasons.