WASHINGTON - Tax credits for families that don't qualify. Medicare payments for treatments that might not be necessary. Unemployment benefits for people who are secretly working. Federal agencies reported making $100 billion in payments last year to people who may not have been entitled to receive them.
Congressional investigators say the figure could be even higher.
"The amounts here are absolutely staggering," said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. "It's over $100 billion each of the last five years. That's a staggering half a trillion dollars in improper payments."
Mica chairs the House Oversight government operations subcommittee, which held a hearing on improper payments Wednesday.
Each year, federal agencies are required to estimate the amount of improper payments they issue. They include overpayments, underpayments, payments to the wrong recipient and payments that were made without proper documentation.
Some improper payments are the result of fraud, while others are unintentional, caused by clerical errors or mistakes in awarding benefits without proper verification.
In 2013, federal agencies made $97 billion in overpayments, according to agency estimates. Underpayments totaled $9 billion. That adds up to $106 billion in improper payments, or 3.5 percent of all the payments made by the federal government.
The Obama administration has reduced the amount of improper payments since they peaked at $121 billion in 2010. The administration has stepped up efforts to measure improper payments, identify the cause and develop plans to reduce them, said Beth Cobert, deputy director of the White House budget office.
Federal agencies recovered more than $22 billion in overpayments last year, she said.
"We have taken an aggressive approach to attacking waste, fraud and abuse within federal agencies, and we will continue to seek out new and innovative tools to help us in this fight," Cobert told the subcommittee.
However, a new report by the Government Accountability Office questions the accuracy of agency estimates, suggesting that the real tally could be higher. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.
"The federal government is unable to determine the full extent to which improper payments occur and reasonably assure that appropriate actions are taken to reduce them," Beryl H. Davis, director of financial management at the GAO, told the subcommittee.