PANAMA CITY — More than $1 million in unpaid benefits has been returned to constitutents of Florida’s 2nd Congressional District, U.S. Rep. Gwen Graham’s office recently announced.
The money represents more than 1,100 cases of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans benefits, refunds from the IRS and Deepwater Horizon settlement claims stalled or withheld by the government.
“It shouldn’t be that people have to work through this bureaucracy to get money owed to them,” Graham said.
Since taking office two years ago, the representative said one of her top priorities — and the top priority of her staff — has been assisting the people of the 2nd Congressional District. Often, by the time people call her or her office, they’re deeply frustrated and concerned about how they’re going to move forward without those resources.
“We have a lot of emotional phone calls,” Graham said. “But one thing I tell my staff, and what I look for when hiring people, is that the first phone call in the morning is treated with the same amount of concern as the last phone call.”
One of those callers was Sally Sparks, who works for the Bay County Sheriff’s Office. Sparks said she received a letter in the mail from the Social Security Administration saying she owed them $1,500 in benefits the agency claimed were overpaid to her. The claim, Sparks said, was from when she was 21 years old and receiving benefits after her father, who served in the military, had died. The money had been put toward her college education, she said.
Sparks said she called the Social Security Administration and explained her situation, but she was told she had to pay or have action taken against her. She appealed the claim and was denied, then worked out a payment plan, but she still wasn’t comfortable with the situation. Then Sparks said a friend suggested she write her congress member for help.
“I thought, ‘OK, I’ll give it a whirl,’ ” Sparks said.
A few days after sending in the forms to Graham’s field office, Sparks said she received news her claim had been fully resolved.
“You never really think someone that high up would respond to a regular person,” Sparks said. “I got an actual action, not a form response. That’s what really counts.”
Graham also recently announced the trimming of more than $150,000 from her office’s budget, which she said will be put toward reducing the federal deficit, and she was named Florida’s most independent representative in Congress and the sixth most independently voting Democrat in Congress by Congressional Quarterly.
“I just try to do what’s right,” Graham said. “I committed when I ran for office that I was going to be driven by being informed.”