Come March 1, the check will no longer be in the mail -- maybe.
That is the day the federal government will switch over to electronic payments for all of its benefits -- the largest being Social Security, where 8 percent of New Mexico recipients -- some 37,000 -- still receive a monthly check in the mail. The percentage of paper Social Security checks is the largest in the Western United States and twice the national average.
Recipients can call or go online and get a waiver to the new law, or they can receive a Direct Express prepaid debit card loaded with their monthly Social Security or other benefit amount, according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
Mary Ann Leberg, a 66-year-old who lives in El Rito, a rural community between Espanola and Abiquiu, is concerned that many people still don't know about the change. Leberg is a Social Security recipient with direct deposit at an Espanola bank, but she has talked to others, she said, and is finding out many aren't aware of the switch to electronic payments.
She's handed out fliers and organized an informational meeting, and she has spoken with postal staff in La Madera and Vallecitos. "I fear people will be rudely surprised when they come to the post office in March, and there is no check," she said. "These people are very poor, and they don't have a bank account. They pay their expenses with postal money orders."
Those she has spoken with "are stunned they have to create bank accounts," she said. The community is more than 30 miles to the closest branch of Valley National Bank or Del Norte Credit Union in Espanola.
For those who do not want direct deposit, the U.S. Treasury will issue the prepaid debit card called Direct Express, which does not carry transaction costs. When Leberg made inquiries, she said, she was told beneficiaries have to take some action to even get the debit card. "They have to do something," Leberg said. "It won't come to them."
But that is not necessarily the case, according to government officials. Payments will not be interrupted, said Walt Henderson, national director of the Treasury Department's Go Direct campaign. Some beneficiaries will continue to receive checks, along with a letter explaining the new law, while others will be sent the debit card automatically. Specific information on who would continue to receive checks is not being publicly released, another spokeswoman said.
The transition to electronic payment is being made to save money and provide added security. The change will save almost $400,000 in paper and processing costs for New Mexico alone, the Treasury website says. All government payments will be affected starting March 1, including benefits from the Veteran's Affair Department, the Railroad Retirement Board, the Department of Labor and the Office of Personnel Management.
The U.S. Treasury Department has said anyone age 90 or over will automatically be exempted. Other exemptions will be granted for those mentally disabled or "living in a remote area without sufficient banking infrastructure," according to the website.
Leberg said she inquired and was told that means one has to live 50 miles or more from a bank -- and just a few Northern New Mexico communities would qualify, such as the villages of Las Tablas and Vallecitos. But she is urging others who are close to the limit to apply for a waiver if they need it.
U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, the Democrat who represents Northern New Mexico in Congress, reiterated that no benefits will be interrupted. "It is important for seniors to know that they will continue to receive their Social Security benefits uninterrupted, even if they are not in the electronic system," he said.
The congressman said electronic payment will help Social Security reduce costs, and "lost or stolen checks will no longer be a concern for seniors."
"The Social Security Administration is including information with monthly benefit checks in order to inform Social Security recipients of this effort to increase the number of seniors who receive electronic payments," he added, "and my office will be available to assist seniors with any questions they have in this process."
A spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said his office hasn't received any constituent inquiries about the new law.
"Sen. Udall wants to make sure that families and seniors who rely on receiving their Social Security payments in a timely manner have all the information and help they need during this transition," Udall's office said in a statement. "If your bank does not accept direct deposits or if you are a caretaker for someone with disabilities, the Treasury Department has set up a hotline where you can apply for a waiver."
Udall spokeswoman Marissa Padilla added, "They will not be switched over automatically to a different system without their knowledge or approval," but benefit recipients will be contacted and presented options. Padilla said those who call the waiver hotline will be asked a few questions and then sent a formal application via the mail.
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