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Bug Databases Government Programming Software The Almighty Buck United States IT News

Database Error Costs Social Security Victims $500M 299

Posted by timothy
from the drop-in-the-bucket dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "The Washington Posts reports that the Social Security Administration has agreed to pay more than $500 million in back benefits to more than 80,000 recipients whose benefits were unfairly denied after they were flagged by a federal computer program designed to catch serious criminals. At issue is a 1996 law, which contained language later nicknamed the 'fleeing felon' provision, that said fugitives were ineligible to receive federal benefits. As part of its enforcement, the administration began searching computer databases to weed out people who were collecting benefits and had outstanding warrants. The searches captured dozens of criminals, including some wanted for homicide, but they also ensnared countless elderly and disabled people accused of relatively minor offenses such as shoplifting or writing bad checks and in some cases, the victims simply shared a name and a birth date with an offender." (Read more, below.)
"The lead plaintiff in the class-action suit, Rosa Martinez, 52, of Redwood City, Calif., was cut off from her $870 monthly disability benefit check in January 2008 because the system had flagged an outstanding drug warrant in 1980 for a different Rosa Martinez from Miami. Officials said it is difficult to estimate how many social security recipients might be affected by the agreement but said the number is fewer than 1 percent nationally. 'What's remarkable about this case is thesheer number of individuals who were unfairly denied benefits and the size of the financial settlement they will receive,' said David H. Fry of Munger, Tolles & Olson, one of the pro bono attorneys who represented victims."
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Database Error Costs Social Security Victims $500M

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  • by abshack (1389985) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:22PM (#29044147)
    This is human error. When will people learn not to make peoples' name the primary key... :/
    • by geekoid (135745)

      Wat do you suggest they use?

      I mean, it should be SSN, but then they would have to because no private company is allowed to use it; which lowers its value to ID thieves immensely.

      In fact, that would halt most wide spread mass ID theft in the US.

      • Unsigned bigint auto-increment.

        You can be number 1.

      • by rickb928 (945187)

        Um, this is the one agency that SHOULD USE THE SSN!!!

        Think about it.

        And if they can't keep the reused ones straight, based on date of birth, well, there is no way we can manage anything.

        This is not rocket science. If you want to use names, perhaps ya gotta check for duplicates and refer it to a human to do some research and decide which one is the crook and which one is not. Actually, since we should not be denying anyone benefits, you keep paying both until you figure it out.

        And this is the Government you

        • why would the government need to verify identity? Everybody's covered, so the only question is medical history.
          • by rickb928 (945187)

            Oh. So are you covered if your dead?

            Are you covered if you're in prison?

            Are you covered if you aren't actually listed in the system?

            Do we cover resident aliens? Am I one? What does the system say I am?

            Seriously, the 'everybody's covered' concept doesn't even work in places where 'everyone's covered'. Like Canada for example. I wonder about Germany, though they might. Norway? Wouldn't be suprised. France? Bahaha!

            Again, ease up on the naivete. It is nontrivial, and not a certainty, that the system will

            • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

              Everybody = everybody. If you're in prison, they can figure that out by the marshalls escorting you. They don't know if you're listed because they don't check, since you're covered anyway. The whole point of this is so you don't have to spend so much effort on denying people. This is how you save money.
    • by Hubbell (850646) <.moc.evil. .ta. .iillebbuhnairb.> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:34PM (#29044265)
      How about the summary leading me to believe that is one of the dumbest laws in existence. How exactly do you pay benefits to a FUGITIVE, someone the fucking police/fbi/law enforcement and even bounty hunters can't find?
    • by Finallyjoined!!! (1158431) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:35PM (#29044275)
      There's always some sodding twat that thinks it would be brilliant to make the primary key an email address.

      If they're not already burning in hell, I'd quite like to shove a bottle of Dave's Insanity Sauce up their ring.

      Any /.'ers used the piece of total twattage that is "Sostenuto"?

      I don't have the words to describe how shite it is.

      Smiff: "But it does send emails!"
      • I know I'm being off-topic, but I don't think that post could have been any more British. Awesome.
        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by MaggieL (10193)

          Well, it could if it suggested that the government be put in charge of life-and-death healthcare decisions. But given TFA that might look silly.

    • by chrb (1083577) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:47PM (#29044379)

      The problem was not the choice of primary key. The problem was the way in which the people in charge of the process failed to consider the possibility of false positives.

      more than 80,000 recipients whose benefits were unfairly denied... The searches captured dozens of criminals

      "dozens?" Let's be generous and say 50. 50 out of 80,000 is a 99.9% rate of false positives. Not good.

      • by StikyPad (445176)

        Let's be generous and say 50.

        On the contrary, with a floor of 24 and an an infinite ceiling, 50 is quite a conservative definition of "dozens!"

        • Actually, no one I've ever met used the term "dozens" when the total being discussed was more than a gross. For the sake of argument, let's say that they captured 150 criminals. Yes, that certainly justifies denying benefits to thousands of people. (sarcasm, people, sarcasm)

    • by jackspenn (682188)
      One would think the SSN could serve as a unique identifier.

      And our non-representative representatives in Congress wonder why so many people don't trust them to run the healthcare system.

      I can see it now

      We're sorry Matt Hew Johnson, we accidentally removed your leg as per operation instructions intended for Matthew Johnson down the hall. Now I know you think you got the bad end of the deal. I mean you loosing your leg and him getting the heart transplant you expected, but before you start complain
      • by scot4875 (542869)

        Has the healthcare "protesting" spilled into other discussions now? This is the second post already that I've read that's completely offtopic. Are you being encouraged to shout down *everyone*?

        Also, to respond directly to your post, how is your scenario of mistaking "Matt Hew Johnson" with "Matthew Johnson" in adjacent rooms relevant to anything?

        It sure would be great to hear a logical argument against government healthcare that couldn't be countered with, "but how is that any different than what we alrea

      • by StikyPad (445176) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:27PM (#29045541) Homepage

        You know, military healthcare in general gets a lot of negative attention, but it's still better than any private program I've ever had. The idea of "death boards" is absolutely ridiculous -- the military will do anything in its power to treat someone, even if it means flying them halfway across the globe. And there's certainly no higher incidence of incompetence in military providers than in the civilian sector, especially when you consider that many military medical personnel moonlight at local clinics and hospitals.

        Choosing between a few days of bedrest in a hospital with some peeling paint, making years of payments to cover my deductible/spending cap, or filing for bankruptcy, and in either case possibly losing my coverage and the ability to get new insurance, I'd pick the former. With insurance companies competing based on who can deny the most coverage, and most people unable to even chose their insurers in the first place (in any meaningful way), the state of healthcare in the US has nowhere to go but up.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by Dragonslicer (991472)
          One of the best things I saw was a couple weeks ago when Bill Kristol was on The Daily Show. Kristol is completely opposed to government-run health care, but Jon Stewart talked him into saying how military personnel deserve and generally get the best health care possible. It was great to see such hypocrisy get nailed.
  • How on earth... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Omega Hacker (6676) <omega.omegacs@net> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:23PM (#29044165)
    Let me get this straight: we're talking about the Social Security Administration, who is responsible for assigning every citizen a unique number which is then used to pay out benefits, and is also used by everybody's dog to act as a unique ID, presumably including the criminal justice system. The very same people who *dole out* these numbers can't be bothered to use them to cross-check whether somebody should stop getting benefits because of this law???
    • It is bad database design to use first and last names as primary keys. You usually want to use something unique like SSN.

      Health Insurance companies used to do that as well, I had the same name as my father but a different middle name and different birth date and SSN. But the darned Health Insurance companies used to claim they were double billed when I saw the same doctor as my father and I lived at the same address. I eventually had to see different doctors and get a different insurance company. But even b

  • by NotBornYesterday (1093817) * on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:23PM (#29044169) Journal

    ... in some cases, the victims simply shared a name and a birth date with an offender.

    But I imagine they do not, with the exception of ID fraud, share a Social Security number?

  • by Profane MuthaFucka (574406) <busheatskok@gmail.com> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:24PM (#29044177) Homepage Journal

    when you make everybody do the job that the police are supposed to be doing. Who thought it would be a good idea for Social Security people to be screening criminals? (Newt Gingrich and his Contract on America congress in 1996, that's who). Screening criminals is what the police should be doing. What's next? Is the FBI going to be paving the roads?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by sycodon (149926)

      Or the IRS and SSA enforcing Health Insurance regulations?

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Cro Magnon (467622)

      Is the FBI going to be paving the roads?

      That would explain why there are potholes big enough to stop any gataway car in its tracks.

  • What a stupid law. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by pavon (30274) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:36PM (#29044281)

    I'm not getting this law. First off, social security isn't some charity program, paid for by other taxpayers. It is money that the citizens/criminals paid into the system and deserve to get back, regardless of what else they have done in life. Besides, are we really doing ourselves a favor by denying ex-cons their own money that they need to survive in their old age?

    Furthermore, if it really is about current fugitives, then wouldn't the government love to know a mailing address for these people so they can arrest them, rather than just refusing SS payment?

  • by hellfire (86129) <(deviladv) (at) (gmail.com)> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:46PM (#29044373) Homepage

    Okay, you geeks all confuse me. First you say that by law no one should be using the SSN as a unique identifier except for the SSA itself. Then you ask why aren't people using this unique number to avoid mistakes!!!

    I don't blame the SS because they were doing what they were told to do, cut off what someone defined as criminals. The problem was the definition, and how to link SS roles with all these outstanding warrants and whatnot. Are we sure the criminal records all have SSNs? Or could it be that we did a join on some other column and hoped for the best and thought 98% was good enough? I can see a programmer being forced to do the latter by a stupid law. How many John Smiths without proper social security numbers were in the dataset they had to work with?

    This was a stupid law to begin with, and probably had some stupid premises to get the information linked up. Never allow a politician to act like a project manager, they'll never get it right.

    • Then you ask why aren't people using this unique number to avoid mistakes!!!

      By people, you mean the SSA? Aren't they the ones who should be using the SSN/birthdate?

      • by Chris Burke (6130)

        By people, you mean the SSA? Aren't they the ones who should be using the SSN/birthdate?

        SSA would use SSNs, Law Enforcement, i.e. the people providing the SSA with information about criminals, may not have been.

        It was a very simple point. Two replies totally missed it.

        • law enforcement doesn't have the ability to identify someone to that level? Then screw 'em. You shouldn't cut people's benefits because they share a name with someone with a bench warrant - next they'll make up a scret list of names that keep people off planes.
          • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

            by Chris Burke (6130)

            You shouldn't cut people's benefits because they share a name with someone with a bench warrant

            Ah, yes, and now you understand the real problem.

            next they'll make up a scret list of names that keep people off planes.

            Hehe.

            Lady behind the counter, just after telling me that I was on a TSA Watch List: "There must be an evil Chris Burke out there."

            Me: *shifty eyes* Yeah, some other Chris Burke must be evil...

    • You are right, the police do not take ssns, and there are no ssns on warrants. I still think without a unique identifier we should have used every identifier we had access to. Birthplace and such. More importantly I think when people are denied social insurance they should be replied to with detail as to why and have an easy process to fight it ... like if it wasn't you.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @04:55PM (#29044471)

    I look up and shake my fist -- COBOL!!!!!!

  • by Anonymous Coward

    What they needed was some sort of primary key for their social security tables, with which to match against. Perhaps a number, unique to each individual?

  • Do away with it (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward

    We wouldn't have these problems if they simply did away with Social Security entirely. It was never meant to be a retirement plan for every citizen. It cannot possibly dole out the benefits it has promised to future generations. It is a freaking pyramid scheme, and a poorly planned one at that.

    I've been paying into it for decades now, and I'd still rather they just let me cut my losses. Think of the boost to the economy if OASDI and Medicare wasn't stolen from your paycheck. That and we could get rid of the

  • Well, everyone who didn't die waiting for this to be straightened out, that is.
  • by DustoneGT (969310) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:37PM (#29045643)
    the people who are forced to pay into the unsustainable scheme?
  • by jeffsenter (95083) on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @06:48PM (#29045769) Homepage

    My employer the Mental Health Project of the Urban Justice Center is one of the nonprofits on this lawsuit.

    The Press Release from www.urbanjustice.org

    The Social Security Administration (SSA) will repay over $500 million to 80,000 individuals whose benefits were suspended or denied since January 1, 2007, under a nationwide class action settlement which U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken preliminarily approved on August 11, 2009. Many more people who were denied benefits between 2000 and 2006 will also have the chance to re-establish their eligibility. All told, more than 200,000 individuals will receive back benefits and/or have benefits re-instated under this settlement.

    The settlement resolves a class action lawsuit challenging SSAâ(TM)s unlawful policy of suspending or denying benefits based on warrant information. The lawsuit, Martinez v. Astrue, disputed SSAâ(TM)s interpretation of a narrowly drawn provision of the Social Security Act, which prohibits payment of benefits to anyone "fleeing to avoid prosecution" for a felony.

    Courts across the country have held that the law does not permit SSA to suspend or deny benefits without a finding that the person had the intent to flee. However, SSA had continued to suspend or deny benefits to thousands each month based only on a crude computer matching system using outstanding warrant information.

    This unlawful policy has had devastating consequences on the lives of elderly and disabled individuals, many of whom rely upon Social Security benefits as their only income and, without their rightfully due benefits, have been unable to pay for rent or other basic necessities. Moreover, the absence of a functioning appeal system left people without recourse to challenge these denials for years; individuals were routinely and inaccurately told that they could not appeal these decisions, even though an appeals process does in fact exist. This settlement will allow class members â" many of whom have been rendered destitute, homeless, and dependent on relatives and charity â" to rebuild their lives.
    A fairness hearing is scheduled to occur September 24, 2009, where Judge Wilken will hear any objections before deciding whether to grant final approval.

    Urban Justice Center, National Senior Citizens Law Center, Disability Rights California, Legal Aid Society of San Mateo County and pro bono counsel Munger, Tolles & Olson represent plaintiffs in this class action.
    Court documents and relevant materials can be found on this page. For more information, contact Emilia Sicilia.

  • Pro bono? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by booch (4157) * <{moc.kehcubgiarc} {ta} {0102todhsals}> on Wednesday August 12, 2009 @09:53PM (#29047073) Homepage

    I think the most shocking part of the story is that the lawyers were working pro bono on a class action case -- especially one this big.

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