Who should pay for the state’s disability check mistake?

Carla Shuford, 74, poses in her home in Chapel Hill Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. Shuford was told this summer she had to repay the state more than $19,000 in disability payments.
Carla Shuford, 74, poses in her home in Chapel Hill Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2017. Shuford was told this summer she had to repay the state more than $19,000 in disability payments. ehyman@newsobserver.com

Carla Shuford suffered a traumatic and life-changing event when she was just 15, losing her left leg to bone cancer. That disability didn’t stop her from working a good while as a secretary at UNC-Chapel Hill, but she later suffered from depression she believes was related to her cancer that led to her having to stop working and go on state disability, followed by Social Security disability.

But an audit of Shuford’s state Disability Income Plan benefits showed more than $19,000 in overpayments since 2006. What happened was that the state had not subtracted money from her disability checks to recognize those years when her Social Security benefits went up due to cost-of-living increases. At first, the state cut its disability payments to her by more than half in order to get the overpayments back in five years. Shuford negotiated a deal to extend the payments over 10 years, which still will be a hardship.

Spread over the time she got the payments, it’s easy to see there was no deception on Shuford’s part, and she wouldn’t necessarily have noticed the amounts over that time. This was not the same, in other words, as someone who’s accidentally cut a check for $10,000 instead of $1,000 and doesn’t bother to report it.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who oversees such matters, isn’t wrong necessarily when he says he’s following the law and that his office has the duty to fix the problem and collect the money.

But Shuford apparently had a hard time negotiating a longer payment schedule, and that shouldn’t have been so difficult for someone on a fixed, low income. So in negotiating repayment, the state ought to be accommodating to people of modest incomes.

But there’s a larger question here, and that is whether citizens who have been honest, who had little reason to think something was wrong because, like most people, they collect disability payments and Social Security without paying a lot of attention to amounts (once the amount is established), should be held responsible for paying everything back. Folwell says some people intentionally take benefits they’re not due, and he’s probably right. But should good, honest folks such as Shuford have to pay back money they never sought to begin with that came their way because of an error on the state’s part?

The easy answer is, the state has to balance the books. But another answer is possible: If the amount is insignificant and there was no intent to deceive on the individual’s part, then the state perhaps should consider writing the debt off. That’s particularly true when a person such as Shuford is put in a hardship by having to repay money in a relatively short period of time.

The state ought to learn from problems with overpayments (there now, obviously, are audits to prevent such problems) and stop them, but there ought to be a process through which such a debt could be forgiven. It is at least worth considering, given that the amounts involving all overpayments are not in the multimillions of dollars – the total is about $1 million, involving 60 people. There’s no question that those who were collecting money far over what they expected should have to pay it back. But when the amount was so small it wasn’t really noticeable – that’s when the “fix” doesn’t seem so simple.