Congress Disturbed by Increase in Federal Improper Payment Totals

Published: September 29, 2016

Big DataPolicy and LegislationWaste, Fraud, and Abuse

Last week, OMB Controller David Mader told skeptical House Oversight and Government Reform Government Operations subcommittee members that a revamp of the federal website that tracks improper payments,, was imminent.

“We’re ready to launch in the next couple of weeks a complete redo of in a way that will capture and display the data,” Mader told the committee.  FY 2016 data should be added to the new site in the first quarter of the 2017 calendar year.

Agencies claim to be reporting more accurate improper payments data, but the total amount of improper payments government-wide has increased for the last two fiscal years.  The federal improper payment rate rose from 4% of program outlays in FY 2014 to 4.4% in FY 2015, amounting to nearly $137 billion, up $12 billion over FY 2014.

This is the second year in a row that the federal government has seen a rise in the improper payment rates and improper payment amounts.  The improper payment goal for FY 2015 was 3.07% of total program outlays.

The website was established in 2010 as a mandate of the Improper Payments Elimination and Recovery Act. “What we were displaying was probably roughly 93% of the improper payments, but we were missing almost 7% of that,” Mader said during the hearing. “There were a couple of other data elements that the statute required that we were not displaying.” Mader and his staff have been working to add the additional elements for the new release of the site.  

Several agencies testified to their expanded use of analytics to identify erroneous payments and help combat improper payments and fraudulent activity. However, Rep. Gerald Connolly (D-VA) was very concerned when none of the witnesses could tell him how much of the $136.7 billion in improper payments were potentially fraudulent activity. He believed this was evidence that more data and better data was needed to help resolve the issue of improper payments. “I don’t know how we devise strategies that try to get at this, if we’re not willing to put some percentage or a number [on payments resulting from fraudulent activity].”

The Obama administration’s FY 2017 budget requested additional authorities for data access, such as expanded access to the full Social Security Death Master File which is currently restricted for privacy reasons.  Another proposal would allow staff from authorized programs to access the HHS National Directory of New Hires data for use in matching identities with claimed benefits.

“Surely we can do better,” Connolly stated. “Surely, as the chairman indicated and I echo his sentiments, it’s a little bit like Groundhog Day when we have these hearings, because I thought we might be making not such incremental progress as maybe spectacular progress with new data systems and new technology and the like.”