Decades of public service in the human services field have made Carolyn Colvin both compassionate and tough-minded. She is dedicated to making sure that the “most vulnerable and most at risk” receive what they are entitled to under government benefits programs. Not a dime less. But, also not a dime more.
She’ll look members of Congress in the eye and tell them exactly what her agency can and cannot do with the budget it’s been given. And she’ll turn around and pursue improper payments and fraud with zeal.
Colvin was nominated as Deputy Social Security Commissioner in October 2009. She waited until December 2010 for Senate confirmation, and now her term runs until January 19, 2013 – the last day of the current presidential term. But the grandmother of six declares, she’d be delighted to stay with the agency after that.
This is not Colvin’s first tour of duty at SSA. During the Clinton Administration, starting in 1994, she was Deputy Commissioner for Policy and External Affairs and, later, Deputy Commissioner for Programs and Policy, then Deputy Commissioner for Operations until February 2001.
She also served in a variety of human services capacities under the late Maryland governor, William Donald Schaefer, known for his quirky blend of compassion and tightfistedness.
Improper payments have been a focus of the Obama administration, which has set concrete goals for improper payment reduction. The bulk of improper payments, for whatever reason, occur at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and the Defense Department. At SSA, the problem is relatively small — $9 billion in 2010 out of total outlays of more than $745 billion.
She stresses that improper payments are very rarely fraudulent payments. “We have over 60 million people on the roles. Last year our employees referred 19 thousand allegations of disability fraud to the Office of Inspector General (OIG). Of those, OIG opened4,600 cases.”
“One reason for the improper payments,” Colvin said, “is the complexity of our programs to administer and for recipients to understand.” Social Security programs have rules of immense complexity that can result in miscalculations in how much a particular person is due. Colvin pointed out, some people end up being underpaid.
Plus, SSA doesn’t always get the information it needs, or it gets the data long after it needs to make determinations of eligibility. For example, she said IRS wage data, which would show if people are working again, at times reaches the agency 18 months after the fact.
In all, Colvin said, “We have an overpayment accuracy rate in the Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program of 99.6 percent and 93.3 percent in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Our goal is to improve our accuracy in SSI to 95 percent by 2013.”
“Our desire is to prevent overpayments,” Colvin said. “We use a number of tools to determine if people still meet our qualifications. Our most effective tool is for our field offices to conduct periodic reviews. Two of our most important reviews are medical – Continuing Disability Reviews and redeterminations for our SSI clients. We also rely on partnerships with private industry and other agencies to share data that may indicate someone is ineligible.”
Colvin and her SSA colleagues also participate in many behind-the-scenes activities at the federal level aimed at improving service delivery and accuracy of benefits programs. For example, she sits on an OMB-sponsored Benefit Processing Working Group. The group shares best practices and ideas for preventing improper payments.
Although reports regularly appear in the media or from GAO about dead people receiving Social Security payments, Colvin says that is a rare phenomenon. In fact, SSA personally contacts people over 100 years of age to make sure they are alive. She noted, SSA pays benefits to 39,000 American centenarians.
For SSA’s future in finding improper payments, she said that, budgets permitting, she hopes to keep investing in IT capabilities such as their Access to Financial Institutions program (AFI). SSA recently implemented this new software nationwide. This automated system helps SSA detect SSI recipients whose bank accounts may be over the SSI resource level. As one of the most IT-intensive agencies, SSA is always balancing ongoing operations and maintenance spending with new application development.
Identifying improper payments is only one step in the overall process; after finding an overpayment, the agency must collect that debt. Last year, Social Security recovered $3.2 billion in program debt and has recovered $14.7 billion in the previous five years, according to Colvin.
In testimony before the House Ways and Means Subcommittees on Social Security and Oversight in January, Colvin detailed the range of tools and activities SSA does to keep improper payments in check. The testimony is worth reading if only to get a sense of the scale of the agency and its programs.
Colvin called working for SSA “a wonderful privilege. I get up every morning and wonder what the day will bring. I’m passionate about protecting this program so it will be there for all of us.”