Friday, July 6, 2012

Struggling with Social Security? You’re Not Alone – So Are the Employees

Let me start out by saying I am not a criminal. Well, except, there was that one time I got a speeding ticket (for those who have driven with me, I know how hard that is for you to believe).

Then there were those teen years when I TP’d a few houses of friends.  That’s not a crime, right?  If it is, certainly the statute of limitations has run out (she asks hopefully).

Oh, well, um, there was that time I distributed anti-military spending flyers at the Open House of an Air Force Base and was quickly escorted into a room full of very serious military police to “talk.” 

That scared the crap out of me but I was not arrested – just told to leave and not return.  No problem!  Thank you for your time!  Sorry to bother you! 

Phew.  (Thank goodness I didn’t TP the military base.)

Nope, I have not been arrested.  I may be a heart-on-my-sleeve liberal but I am definitely not a criminal. (We won't discuss my college years where I went a little off the rails; still, no arrests).

For this (overall) rule-abiding citizen, the Social Security Administration agency recently sure had a way to make me feel like I was trying to pull some sort of fast one.  

After caring for Robert for a couple of years, I applied to become his Representative Payee.  Since the Social Security Administration doesn’t recognize a Durable Power of Attorney, it was the best way for me to avoid sitting for hours in a waiting room with Robert to change an address.  (It didn’t matter if he was asleep as I did this as long as the agent could verify he was there).

As Robert’s Representative Payee, I can call the local office on Robert’s behalf and they will actually talk to me (and Robert can sleep at home)!  I can also go online to take care of many tasks on his behalf.

Such as completing my first Representative Payee report.  It’s a very simple form with just a few questions and is available online so it really couldn’t be any easier.  The expenses are lumped into three main categories and the Representative Payee calculates what they’ve spent within each category over a period of one year.  This was easy to calculate since I keep all receipts for anything spent by Robert or on behalf of Robert and have a detailed Excel spreadsheet with all of his expenses for each month.

I did have a question, however, about the money I’ve saved for him.  Robert has a Special Needs Trust and some of his money is saved in that trust for his future medical needs.  The Social Security Administration website didn’t answer my questions so I needed to talk to an actual person.

After calling the toll free number, listening to several automated options, choosing the wrong one and being unable to undo what I just chose, calling back, choosing the right option, holding for at least twenty minutes, I was finally talking to a real live person! 

Please, please, please do not let us get disconnected, I pleaded in my head.

After verifying I was who I said I was and verifying Robert’s information, I was able to ask my question. How do I indicate on the form that Robert has a Special Needs Trust and a checking account and that some of his money has been saved in these accounts? 

“What do you mean, you’ve “saved” money in his accounts?”

My brother has money left over at the end of the month and I save it for him.

“Ma’am.  His money should be spent for his benefit. You should not have any money left over to save.”

Okay.  Well, I do. He’s well dressed, he is never without briefs or 7-up or reading glasses and I have some money left over.  I’m sorry?

There’s a spot for “savings” on the form so this can’t be that unusual.  My question is about differentiating the Special Needs Trust account and Robert’s checking account.  How do I account for that on the form?

“Ma’am.  I know for a fact you shouldn’t have any money left over.”

Okay.  Look.  I have called the Social Security office several times over the last 18 months and emailed the original rep that set me up as the Representative Payee to confirm Robert was getting the correct amount of money.  I actually thought he was getting more than he should but each time I called, the representatives looked up the account, verified all the information and told me he was getting the correct amount.  I've talked to New Home and they said I have to call Social Security.  I've called Medi-Cal and they confirmed they had Robert's correct address and his correct living situation. 

So I have money left over that I save for his future medical needs or housing or medication that Medi-Cal won’t pay for. 

“Ma’am.  You need to go into your local office with your question. You should not have any money to save.  Do you know where that is, ma’am?”

Yes. I spent many hours there before becoming the Representative Payee which I thought was going to save me time by being able to resolve issues over the phone!

This woman’s attitude was rude and accusatory from the start of our conversation.  She had me so discombobulated, I didn’t even realize until after we hung up that she hadn’t even bothered to look at Robert’s account to verify he was getting the correct amount. 

I was dreading going into the local office so tried my original rep again.  The phone number she gave me had been disconnected.  Great.

After finding the new number and trying my luck with whoever answered the phone (after being on hold for quite some time, of course), I was able to speak to a local representative who answered my question about the two accounts and how to account for them on the form. 

I asked him to confirm the amount Robert is to receive each month since I was concerned I was either going to jail or having to repay thousands of dollars. He said the type of home Robert lives in had been verified by one of their agents and he assured me Robert was getting the correct amount of money each month between Social Security and SSI.

He was even nice about it!

My first Representative Payee form has now been completed online and my stomach has released most of the knots it was in worrying that I was doing something wrong.

The conflicting information given by different representatives is astounding to me and still leaves me with nagging doubts about who is correct.  Given the few experiences I’ve had with Social Security, it is really no wonder the agency has such a terrible reputation. 

How are the disabled or the elderly and their caregivers supposed to be able to navigate the system when the employees can’t even do so!  The system is unnecessarily complicated and needs to be simplified.  At a minimum, representatives need to be uniformly trained so the users can be given the same (correct) answer when talking to any representative.

Now can someone please help me down from this soapbox before the MPs show up?

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