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People receiving Social Security benefits are sometimes unable to manage those benefits due to their young age or a mental or physical impairment. When that happens, the US Social Security Administration selects a representative payee — someone who receives and manages payments in the best interests of the beneficiary.

But the SSA is proposing a stricter screening process for representative payees to avoid risk of abuse or exploitation of vulnerable individuals, and has opened the issue for public comment. The public has just three more days to weigh in on the proposed rule changes.

The move springs partly from a harrowing case in Philadelphia in which a woman was charged with enslaving and abusing several mentally disabled beneficiaries over a period of years as part of a scheme to steal their Social Security payments.

In June 2012, the SSA began a pilot program out of its Philadelphia regional office, which serves Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington DC, to screen representative payee applicants. The pilot program identifies applicants who have committed serious crimes and prevents them from serving as payees.

Aidan Diviny, a public affairs specialist for the SSA’s Philadelphia region office, said it’s an SSA goal to protect “the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of beneficiaries in a manner that preserves their dignity and protects their basic rights.” Diviny also noted that the SSA is doing more to locate alternate payees in cases where they barred a payee applicant.

As of January 2013, the SSA’s Philadelphia region office had reviewed nearly 10,300 representative payee applications. A total of 108 applicants were barred from serving as payees, Diviny said.

Over 5.5 million Social Security beneficiaries have representative payees, according to the SSA. A representative payee can be an organization or a person such as a parent, relative or friend of the beneficiary. Ted Walkenhorst, a lawyer at the privately-owned Disability Benefits Law Center, said in the vast majority of cases he’s seen a family member is selected as the representative payee, and the process works well.

“In my practice, the decision about a representative payee is normally made in a recommendation that is included in a favorable decision issued by a Social Security administrative law judge,” Walkenhorst said.

But the ultimate decision about whether there should be a payee and who that person should be is made at the local office level. And those local offices must handle an increasing number of requests and applications with limited resources.

“The people in the local social security offices with cutbacks in staffing are trying to do twice as much work with half the number of people,” Walkenhorst said. “They don’t have resources to do much in the way of investigations.”

As for the screening program, Walkenhorst said, “it’s obviously a great idea. You don’t want people serving in that capacity who are likely to abscond with the money.”

This story was produced in cooperation with GIMBY.org, a Washington, DC-based news blog about the local impact of the federal government.