By Sarina Trangle
U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica) announced Monday he introduced legislation that would forgive debts incurred by Hurricane Sandy survivors who the federal government mistakenly overcompensated and then sought to recoup the extra money from them.
Meeks said thousands received more from the Federal Emergency Management Agency than they were entitled to, and two years after the October 2012 disaster, they are in no financial position to pay it back.
“More than two years after Sandy, victims who received FEMA assistance are now being asked to relive the emotional and financial distress as FEMA takes action to collect accidental overpayments. These overpayments occurred through no fault of the recipients and are a result of the overwhelming size and scope of FEMA’s response,” Meeks said in a statement. “It is my hope that Congress will take swift action to fix this problem.”
Meeks said some overpayments amounted to no more than $1,000 and went to senior citizens in the Belle Harbor Manor assisted-living facility in the Rockaways.
“For these seniors, many of whom live on a fixed income, as well as the tens of thousands of other recipients of overpayments, the debt-collection process potentially includes attaching one’s Social Security benefits, reducing their credit scores, and lengthy and costly litigation,” he said in a statement.
FEMA said it does not comment on legislation, but was striving to work with those who owe the agency money.
“Federal law requires FEMA and other federal agencies to recover improper payments,” FEMA said in a statement. “FEMA remains committed to working with applicants and ensuring they have an understanding of the options available to resolve their debt, which include making a payment, filing an appeal, requesting a compromise based on inability to pay and establishing a payment plan.”
FEMA said 2 percent of Sandy survivors who received financial assistance were later sent recoupment notices because they got money they were not entitled to through fraud, human error and accounting mistakes. The agency estimated the collective $23 million debt incurred represents about 2 percent of money dispensed in the wake of the hurricane.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is backing the bill in the Senate, and U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm (R-S.I.) touted the measure as a bipartisan effort.
“With countless Sandy survivors still not in their homes over two years after the storm, I’m proud to work with my friend and colleague Congressman Meeks on this common sense solution that will spare thousands of these disaster victims from digging into their own pockets to make up for the government’s mistake,” Grimm said in a statement.
Reach reporter Sarina Trangle by e-mail at stran[email protected]nglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4546.