Mission improbable: retrieve $50 million

federal workers

September 01, 2006|By Melissa Harris

This month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services improperly allowed a total of $50 million to be deposited into the bank accounts of hundreds of thousands of participants in the new prescription drug plan.

And this week, employees at the Woodlawn-based agency began the difficult task of getting all of it back.

CMS spokesman Jeff Nelligan said that a data processing error among a small team of workers in Woodlawn stopped the Social Security Administration from automatically deducting prescription drug premiums from about 231,000 participants' Social Security checks.

About 90 percent of the people who have that premium automatically removed use direct deposit.

This month, John R. Dyer, CMS chief operating officer, sent a letter to affected participants, telling them to set that extra money aside and that the agency would follow up with directions on how to return it.

Those directions were mailed Wednesday.

The letter lists the amount of money the beneficiary incorrectly received and instructs the beneficiary to mail a check for that amount to a post office box in California, or call a toll-free number to have the amount debited from a bank account.

Those who received an incorrect check in the mail are being instructed to void it and mail it to the same post office box.

The average overpayment was $215, Nelligan said.

Workers in Woodlawn detected a problem Aug. 11, but it took about a week to determine the extent of the incorrect payments.

"If returning the full amount presents a hardship, we're going to help those folks set up monthly installment payments," Nelligan said. "We're terribly sorry for this inconvenience."

Collection agencies

The Internal Revenue Service is expected to turn over personal data on about 12,500 taxpayers to private collection agencies next week. Members of this group owe less than $25,000 each.

The private firms will keep 21 to 24 cents of every dollar they recover.

In testimony before a House subcommittee in March, IRS Commissioner Mark W. Everson agreed with several panel members that it would be cheaper for his agency to do this work in-house than to hire contractors because of the chunk of money the collection agencies keep.

But budget restrictions, Everson said, have prevented him from hiring the employees he needs to go after the smaller scofflaws.

"If you look across the corner of the world that I live in, which is the domestic, discretionary, non-Homeland, non-DOD budget - that's a bad place to be, as this committee knows," Everson said.

Although this issue has received much media attention - due in large part to an aggressive campaign by the National Treasury Employees Union - contracting out debt services is quite common in government.

Maryland does it with state taxes, and the federal government with outstanding student loan repayments.

Accused firefighter

A 21-year-old federal firefighter in Salmon, Idaho, has been accused of persuading a friend to set a half-acre brush fire to create more work for federal crews in the area, according to the Associated Press.

The suspect, Levy Miller, has worked as a firefighter for the Bureau of Land Management for two years. He has been charged with conspiracy to commit arson.

Next week, this column will feature federal workers whose lives were changed by Hurricane Katrina. If you are a federal worker and would like to share your story, contact the writer at melissa.harris@baltsun.com, or 410-715-2885.

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