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I'm Not Getting Enough' is a Common Gripe

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Q: My husband and I are both in our 80s and have been getting Social Security for about 20 years. But we've always felt that our benefits are too low. We've gone to the Social Security office several times over the years to get our benefits refigured. They've always said they checked into it and that we are being paid correctly. But we still just don't believe them. Is there something we can do to finally get this resolved?

A: I can tell you that based on my 32 years of working for the Social Security Administration, by far the No. 1 complaint that SSA representatives get is: "I don't think I am getting the right Social Security benefit amount." And surprise surprise: I never heard anyone allege that he or she was getting too much money. It was always that the Social Security check was too low!

I think this phenomenon results when senior citizens start talking and comparing Social Security benefit amounts. The person receiving less inevitably feels cheated. What they don't understand is that there are literally dozens of variables that determine the amount of a Social Security check: date of birth, earnings history, early retirement reductions, late retirement bonuses, etc.

Readers who follow this column know that I am often critical of SSA and the service the organization provides. But I can tell you there is one thing they are very good at: SSA is VERY CAREFUL and VERY ACCURATE about calculating Social Security benefits. There have been countless studies done by Congress and other oversight agencies concerning the accuracy of Social Security payments. And the studies show that SSA pays the right benefit amount something like 99.8 percent of the time.

I should clarify that I am talking about the accuracy of the initial calculation of a person's basic Social Security benefit amount. People getting ongoing Social Security checks can be paid incorrectly from time to time. But that's usually because SSA has faulty information. An example is when a worker is making more than the allowable limit and fails to inform the government of his or her earnings. This results in benefits being paid that were not due. Those kinds of "overpayments" are common. But the person's basic Social Security benefit amount is still accurate.

So, now back to the reader's question: To put that 99.8 percent accuracy rate another way, statistically, there are about two chances out of 1,000 that you are being paid incorrectly.

That means it's highly likely that despite what you think, you're getting the correct amount.

However, it appears you've been fretting about this for 20 years. If you're just not going to be able to sleep at night until you get this resolved, the only thing that I can suggest is that you go to your local Social Security office and demand to speak to a supervisor or the manager. He or she should give you better service than you think you received before.

Q: My mom lives in New York. I live in New Jersey. She is 83 years old. Right now, she gets a Social Security check and has a bit of money coming in from an annuity. But it won't be long until that extra money runs out and she'll only have Social Security to live on. She tells me that when her annuity runs out, Social Security will switch her to Medicaid and she'll be able to get by with that extra help and her Social Security check. Is this true? Is that the way it works?

A: Medicaid is sort of similar to the welfare version of Medicare. (Bill Gates will get Medicare when he turns 65, but he could never qualify for Medicaid.) But Medicaid is NOT run by the Social Security Administration; it's run by state welfare agencies. So normally, your mother would need to go to a welfare office to see if she can get Medicaid.

However, many people get on Medicaid automatically by qualifying for Supplemental Security Income payments. SSI is a federal welfare program that is managed by SSA. So, when your mom runs low on money, she would have to go to the Social Security office to see if she's eligible for SSI. If she gets SSI, they'll automatically put her on Medicaid. But if she has too much money (meaning if her Social Security check is too high to get SSI in New York), then she would have to go directly to a state welfare office to see if she can receive Medicaid without getting SSI.

The SSI rates vary from one state to another. So, she'll have to check with her local Social Security office to find out the eligibility rules in New York. But the income limit is usually about $1,000 per month. In other words, if her Social Security check is more than $1,000 per month, she probably won't get SSI and would have to get Medicaid directly from a welfare office.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at thomas.margenau@comcast.net. To find out more about Tom Margenau and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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