Needed: a government agency for do-gooders.
The federal government has 479 agencies. The number seems small until you count the branches. The National Institutes of Health consists of 47 separate bureaucracies! The Environmental Protection Agency keeps 17,000 full-time workers busy in hundreds of departments.
In view of this, you may think the last thing we need is one more agency. But I'm proposing one. Lets call it the National Bureau of Consumer Returns.
Its purpose would be to serve people like Wendy Kessler and Kay Hall, two consumers who contacted me with similar problems. They both want to give money back to the government. That's right. At a time when the federal deficit is at an all-time high -- and climbing -- Kessler and Hall want to do their part by giving some of your tax money back.
The trouble is, they can't.
Kessler has spent the past decade suffering with arthritis that limited her movement and caused so much joint pain, swelling, and stiffness she was unable to work. So she did the only thing she could: She filed for Social Security Disability Insurance and Medicare.
Over the course of 10 years, she drew thousands of dollars in disability and medical payments. It was a life raft when things weren't going well, she conceded. But now the payments have become more like a weight around her neck.
Unexpectedly, her arthritis has gone into remission. "Nobody seems sure how it happened," she says. But it did. And while she is grateful for all the help she received, now she would like the disability payments to stop. "I'm able bodied again and I can work now. I don't need the government's money any longer."
Given the state of the economy, you would think someone who wanted to stop receiving federal money would be welcomed at the Social Security Administration. Not so!
"The agency told me that the government has issued a moratorium on reviewing disability cases," she told me. "That means I have to wait for however long it takes -- possibly years -- before someone agrees to stop sending me disability payments.
"This is totally absurd, because I am no longer disabled and have letters from my physicians to prove it."
My National Bureau of Consumer Returns would swing in to action at a time like this. It would stop sending Kessler those annoying monthly checks, and even give her the option to return what she feels she was overpaid -- so the returned money could be distributed to someone who needs it.
Is this too absurd to imagine?
Kay Hall is wondering the same thing about generosity she received. Last year, the federal government spent $1.6 billion on a program to provide phones to low-income consumers. Hall was thankful to qualify.
"Last year was a nightmare and I lost everything," she told me. "I qualified for government assistance to receive a free cellphone from Assurance Wireless [one of the phone carriers that participates in the federal program]. Now I've gotten back on my feet, and I'd like to reimburse the company for the cost of the phone during the time I used it.
"I have tried calling many times. But the only answer anyone gave me was 'Just make a donation to Goodwill.' "
The suggestion -- to sort of "pay it forward" by making a donation to an unrelated charity like Goodwill -- just doesn't make sense to Kay. She thinks it makes more sense to return a favor to the person or company that provided it.
"This is unacceptable. I just want to pay back Assurance. Why isn't there a system in place that allows taxpayers to return money to the government if they reach a point where that is possible?"
Once again, the NBCR could smooth out the situation. It could take back Kay's phone, and use the money she reimbursed the government to provide service to a family that needs it.
Of course, my fictional agency would probably need adjustments: a whole accounting department to monitor the returns, another accounting department to monitor the first accounting department, a fleet of pickup and delivery vans with trained drivers standing by in every major city, an investigative branch to study the motives of those attempting to return money...
And then there would be car services, cellphones, and laptops for each investigator and their hand picked assistants, and a special public relations firm to promote Federal Return Day.
Maybe when it comes to the federal government, it's just too much to expect anything could be simple -- or guided by common sense.