Protecting Vulnerable Adults: Making Improvements to SSA’s Representative Payee Program

Currently, there are over 10 million older adults who rely exclusively on Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits to meet their daily housing, food, and medical needs. For many individuals over the age of 65, SSI benefits are their only source of income available. There is no doubt that every single penny of their modest $733 monthly benefit amount is needed to make ends meet. Due to increasing awareness of financial elder abuse and cognitive impairments—such as Alzheimer’s—more seniors are looking to additional supports to help them manage their own benefits. In addition to utilizing traditional family and community support networks, more beneficiaries and their families are considering making use of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Representative Payee Program to help manage their Social Security and SSI benefits.

This was certainly the case for Mr. Jones and his representative payee, Ms. Best (names changed). When Mr. Jones found himself in dire need of income support, he contacted a local agency to receive assistance with his SSI and VA benefit applications. Ms. Best, the advocate assigned to his case, helped him through the process and developed a trusting relationship with Mr. Jones. Upon approving Mr. Jones’ application for SSI benefits, SSA appointed Ms. Best to serve as his representative payee. She took an active role to ensure that Mr. Jones received much needed support to meet his daily needs. When Mr. Jones’ health dramatically declined, Ms. Best helped move Mr. Jones out of his home and into a nursing home.

Mr. Jones’s roommate in the nursing home withdrew nearly $9,000 from his bank account over the few years he was in the nursing home.

This change resulted in a chain of unfortunate events, as Mr. Jones’ diminished capacity placed him at greater risk for financial exploitation by fellow nursing home residents. It also became more difficult for Ms. Best to help manage his financial affairs. Although Ms. Best used the funds properly, Mr. Jones’s roommate in the nursing home withdrew nearly $9,000 from his bank account over the few years he was in the nursing home. Ms. Best worked tirelessly to bring this injustice to light; however SSA removed her from acting as rep payee and instead appointed the nursing home facility as Mr. Jones’s new payee. To no avail, Ms. Best contacted all agencies involved to rectify this situation and share Mr. Jones’s story. Even after his death, SSA has not acknowledged the nursing home’s failure to help prevent financial abuse within their facility or SSA’s own role in failing to provide adequate monitoring and oversight of Mr. Jones’s funds.

At Justice in Aging, we work to protect our nation’s most vulnerable seniors from this kind of financial exploitation and misuse of their modest incomes. In recognition of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15, 2016, Justice in Aging released an issue brief detailing the ways in which SSA could improve its Representative Payee Program to better serve the growing number of older adults who rely on this program. There are currently nearly 6 million representative payees who serve over 8 million beneficiaries, with an increase in the need for representative payees forecast in the coming decades, primarily due to greater numbers of beneficiaries who will be aged 85 or older. While SSA has broad authority to administer the program, the agency must also address systemic issues that negatively impact the program and the beneficiaries it serves. Justice in Aging has worked with advocates across the country to develop recommendations to address the major issues facing the representative payee program, especially as they specifically relate to older adults.

These issues include:

  1. problems with the SSA’s process to determine that a beneficiary cannot manage or direct the management of their benefits;
  2. the need for SSA to recruit more payees considering the growing aging population;
  3. SSA’s responsibility and need to provide more in-depth and improved training and education for payees; and
  4. inadequate monitoring and oversight of payees.

There are other issues, but we have primarily focused on these four areas. Our work includes attending and presenting at meetings with interested groups from across the country, and speaking with officials from SSA. We have also created an online toolkit to garner more attention and support for the systemic reforms that need to be made to improve the Representative Payee Program. This toolkit includes fact sheets for professionals, consumers, and caregivers, and issue briefs detailing the issues facing the Representative Payee Program and our recommendations for addressing them.

Justice in Aging works to protect our nation’s most vulnerable seniors from this kind of financial exploitation and misuse of their modest incomes.

Over the past year, SSA has undertaken a comprehensive examination of its Representative Payee Program, making this a critical time for advocacy. There have been countless instances where beneficiaries, older adults in particular, experience unnecessary barriers to proper safekeeping and spending their funds. In light of this reality, there is a great need to ensure that these individuals are not victims of financial exploitation or other forms of elder abuse. This need coincides with the overall goal to ensure that older adults have the necessary support to age in dignity.

These issues are explored in a recent Justice in Aging webinar. Materials for advocates who are interested in learning more about the Representative Payee Program are currently available in our Representative Payee Toolkit. We encourage advocates and caregivers to utilize the materials from this toolkit to bolster their local, state, and federal advocacy efforts.

About Shana Wynn

Shana Wynn joins Justice in Aging as a 2015-2016 Borchard Law and Aging Fellow. During her fellowship Shana is working on policy recommendations to help improve SSA’s representative payee program for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients and Social Security beneficiaries.