Federal benefit disbursements going electronic


By HUNTER BISHOP

Tribune-Herald staff writer

If you get a regular check from the Social Security Administration, the Department of Veterans Affairs, or other federal government agencies, you have only a couple more weeks before your money will stop arriving in the mail.

Starting March 1, the U.S. Treasury Department will stop mailing out most checks to its beneficiaries, and instead will be transferring funds electronically to bank accounts or debit cards. The new procedure will eliminate the hassle of lost or stolen checks, which are costly to replace, and recipients will have an easier, faster and surer way to access their funds, according to the Treasury Department.

Anyone receiving a paper check for a federal benefit such as SSA or VA is required to sign up for direct deposit to a bank or other financial institution, or for a Direct Express debit card, by March 1, said Walt Henderson, a Treasury Department official. If a person fails to sign up, “we will reach out to them via mail to see if we can provide some assistance.”

“We will not interrupt payments,” Henderson said. “However, the expectation is that individuals will comply with the law.”

In the state of Hawaii, more than 247,000 monthly federal benefit payments are already made via direct deposit to a bank or credit union account, or to a Direct Express card, said the Treasury Department. That includes than 231,693 Social Security check recipients.

Only 1,872 Social Security check recipients in the County of Hawaii, out of a total of 38,331, are still receiving their checks by mail, according to the SSA.

“We are encouraged that individuals understand the benefits of direct deposit,” Henderson said.

The Treasury Department aims to save up to $100 million a year over the next 10 years. The cost of mailing a paper check is more than $1, while an electronic payment will cost the government about 10 cents, said Suzanne Elio, a Treasury Department spokeswoman in Honolulu.

“The ‘Go Direct’ campaign has worked hard to educate individuals about direct deposit and clear up any misconceptions about electronic payments,” Henderson said. “The good thing is that you don’t have to use a computer for direct deposit. We are simply changing the way we send the payment — from a check in your mailbox to a deposit into your account. If you don’t have a bank account, we have the Direct Express Prepaid Debit MasterCard available.”

The government-issued Direct Express card is loaded with a beneficiary’s monthly benefit as soon as it’s ready for disbursement, eliminating potential mail delay or loss during delivery.

There is no sign-up fee, no monthly fee, and the card can be used anywhere MasterCard is accepted, or at an ATM, he said. Lost cards are replaced one time for free, and for $4 per lost card after that. More information is available at www.usdirectexpress.com.

Direct Deposit has been used by the Treasury for more than 25 years. Henderson said.

“When we started the Go Direct initiative in December 2010, 85 percent of benefit recipients used direct deposit. Now, 93 percent use direct deposit.”

Direct deposit waivers are possible in certain cases but overall there have been few waivers issued, Henderson said.

Anyone who hasn’t signed up yet should inquire at their local bank, savings and loan, or credit union, or call the Social Security Administration at 1-800-333-1795. For more information about the program, go to www.godirect.com.

Email Hunter Bishop at hbishop@hawaiitribune-herald.com

 

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