Sunday, May 15, 2011

Don't Fall For This

Like many people with mental illnesses, I subsist on a Social Security Disability payment, and the generosity of my spouse. A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got a letter from Social Security claiming that not only was I not entitled to further benefits, but also that I had not been entitled to them for the last twenty years, due to some alleged month when I made too much in the early 90s. The letter said I had 10 days to prove otherwise, and if I could not, their decision was final and they would be contacting me about remitting overpayment.

Naturally I panicked. Wouldn't you panic if you were told that not only was your income being cut off, but you'd have to pay back the last 20 years of your salary? So the first thing I did was get an extension of that 10 days, because it was going to take that long just to gather employment records from 1991. I envisioned trying to work again and breaking down and ending up in the hospital. I envisioned them trying to take my husband's property - I certainly had none of my own!

Look, honey, you are SUPPOSED to panic. They're counting on that. They're counting on you thinking that the government can do anything at all to you, and feeling that you are helpless. But this is a scam, and it's no less a scam because it's being done by government employees on government letterhead. It is a form of extortion, and it is very often successful. People often agree to give up future benefits in return for having their 'overpayments' forgiven, and SSA is happy. Never mind that another disabled person has been thrown back onto their non-existent resources, to survive god knows how.

My husband soon calmed me down. There has to be a statute of limitations, he said. Even the IRS can't expect you to show records older than 7 years. And my benefits had started 13 years before I ever met you, he pointed out, so they won't get that money out of me. Cool it. So I chilled - a little.

Then I contacted a savvy friend, who contacted a Disability lawyer, who laughed at the very notion of this scheme. Here's the truth: Social Security cannot overhaul your records in this fashion any earlier than four years back. I was going crazy trying to get financial records from the 90s, but the fact is, EVEN IF some mistake had been made back then and I had been overpaid, I am not liable. Their own Inspector General announced 'Administrative Finality,' which is the name of this rule, for mistakes made by SSA that are four years old or older. They have no right even to send me a letter like this! And they've known that since at least 2006, when the rule was widely distributed.

The problem with this scam is that you cannot get a Disability lawyer to take it on for you. There's no award in it if you win, so there's nothing to pay the lawyer with - and as a beneficiary, you certainly don't have any other cash to pay them. So we have to fight such encroachments on our own, which can be difficult. Here's what I did, on the advice of my wonderful friend Mel C. Thompson: I went on the web and downloaded a form from Senator Diane Feinstein's office, called a Privacy Release Form. When signed by me, this form gives her permission to look into all my records to solve the problem I told her about. I filled out this form and sent it with all the documentation I could get; both in the regular mail and by certified mail. When I tracked the certified mail and it hadn't arrived 10 days later, Mel called their office for me and got a fax number, and I faxed all my documents to her office.

The very next day I received a firm, friendly letter from the Senator saying she would look into this for me. I had faxed my documents at 4:22, and somehow she must have made the 5:00 mail with this letter! She even thanked me for bringing it to her attention. I have every confidence that, while SSA doesn't mind bullying me, they won't wish to tangle with Senator Feinstein. Stay tuned to this Bat Channel for further developments.

But the moral is: don't be taken in. And get SOMEBODY to represent your interests, even if it's only a fierce logical letter writer. It is easy to single out the ill and vulnerable; not so easy if they've  got even one healthy person on their side. Don't be afraid to ask for help.

Ms Fruchey is the author of Is There Room for Me, Too? 12 Steps & 12 Strategies for Coping with Mental Illness.
It is available on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble.com, Kindle, and shortly on Apple's iBookstore.