(LEX 18) — After three years of receiving her monthly retirement check from the Kentucky Public Pension Authority without issue, Sheila Powell was shocked last October to find that one of her payments had been taken back. More shocking was the reason she was given – as far as the retirement system was concerned, she died in August.
“I kinda chuckled and said 'who do I need to do jumping jacks for to prove that I'm alive?'” Powell told LEX 18.
Workers with the Kentucky Public Pension Authority, also known as KPPA, told Powell that a database the retirement system uses for death notifications, Lexis Nexis, had reported she died.
The state returned Powell’s money, $2,364 of it, a few weeks later.
“I said I kinda need my money – you wasted no time in going in and getting money you didn't need to be getting,” Powell told LEX 18 of her conversations with KPPA. “And he said, ‘well ma'am, when Lexis Nexis sends us something that somebody is dead, that's what we have to do because we can't go on paying dead people.’”
KPPA told Powell that somewhere down the line her social security number must’ve been mistakenly entered under a deceased person’s name. They told her her account would be flagged so that her money wouldn’t be taken back again.
But in late December, Powell saw that her bank account had taken an even bigger hit. The retirement system took back three months’ worth of payments out of her account, totaling more than $7,000, Powell said.
This mistake was blamed on a computer glitch, and Powell said the worker she spoke to with KPPA had an unusual suggestion – she offered to change Powell’s birthday to prevent the payments from being deducted again. LEX 18 asked KPPA about the suggestion.
“I don’t know how a person could change their birthday by a day,” said Erin Surratt, executive director of the office of benefits for KPPA.
Surratt said a birth date change wouldn’t be the way KPPA would solve the problem, and said that KPPA would go back and check what happened in Powell’s case. The system is not able to comment on individual cases and couldn’t verify whether or not that was the advice Powell was given.
The system processed nearly 8,000 death notifications in 2021, Surratt said.
“It's very rare that we get a report when a person isn't actually deceased,” Surratt said.
Administrators with KPPA said this was the first they’ve heard of a person’s money being taken back twice after a false death notification.
When a death date is loaded into the system through a third-party vendor like Lexis Nexis, payments are stopped and the case is reviewed by a counselor, Surratt said.
"We have controls in place, we had controls for this,” Surratt said. “Unfortunately this control failed for the individual."
What happened in Powell’s case has caused KPPA to look back at their controls and see if improvements need to be made.
"If I were her I would be upset,” said David Eager, the executive director of KPPA. “I would want some answers from KPPA and we're trying to give them to you and we will – specifically to her directly."
Eager noted the complexity of Kentucky’s retirement system, calling it the most complex retirement system in the country, and praised the system’s staff and transparency.
“We have 120,000 plus people who rely on us to get their money to pay their rent, get their haircuts, pay their car payments, and so forth,” Eager said.
One of Powell’s frustrations in dealing with her missing money was the difficulty of reaching someone with KPPA or the Social Security Administration.
KPPA told LEX 18 that the best way to contact the system about a problem is through email at firstname.lastname@example.org, though people should not include sensitive information, like social security numbers, in emails. Calls can also be made to 502-696-8800 or 1-800-928-4646, and there’s a call-back option to cut back on hold times.
Not long after LEX 18 contacted KPPA to ask about Powell’s money being deducted a second time, Powell heard from the system that her check was on the way. But Powell said she wants reassurance that this won’t happen again.
“Am I gonna have to start calling you every month to say I'm alive?” Powell said.