Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Are SSA Judges Rubber-Stamping Applications for Disability Benefits?


From the National Center for Policy Analysis

June 16, 2014

The Fiscal Times reports that some judges are approving disability insurance at an alarming rate, often approving claims without holding hearings.

When an American applies for disability benefits and is twice denied them, he can appeal to a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), who is required to consider the case record to determine eligibility for benefits.

The rubber-stamping revelation comes from a new report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee:

  • On average, ALJs approve 58 percent of disability claims with an average lifetime benefit of $300,000 per person.
  • From 2005 to 2013, ALJs put 3.2 million Americans on disability programs, costing $1 trillion.
  • During this period, more than 1.5 million Americans joined the federal disability program thanks to ALJs with allowance rates above 75 percent, and 650,000 people were placed in the programs by ALJs with allowance rates above 85 percent.

The House report identifies three judges that approved disability benefits in nearly every case, together awarding lifetime benefits of almost $10 billion. According to the report, "[T]hese judges rubber stamped nearly every claimant before them for a lifetime of benefits at taxpayer expense." For example:

  • Judge Harry Taylor, who has worked within the Social Security Administration for a quarter-century, approved 94 percent of the cases that came to him. Of those, 68 percent were approved without holding a hearing.
  • While Judge Taylor testified to Congress that he keeps an open mind on every case, the House Oversight report revealed that a majority of the cases Taylor approved contained expert medical opinions that were "inconsistent with his findings of disability."
  • Similarly, Judge David Daugherty had an approval rate of nearly 99 percent before retiring in 2011. His disability awards to 8,413 people added up to $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits. Almost half of the benefits were awarded without a single hearing.

According to the report, some judges are approving cases at high rates in order to reduce backlogs. The average disability hearing processing time has fallen from 512 days in 2007 to less than one year in 2012. However, not all judges are "rubber-stamping" disability claims, and the overall allowance rate fell from 72 percent in 2005 to 56 percent last year.

19.4 million Americans are receiving $200 billion in benefits through the Social Security Administration's two disability programs, and taxpayers are left to shoulder the burden of the billions of dollars in improper payments. The Social Security program is on track to run out of funds by 2016.

NCPA Senior Fellow Pamela Villarreal recently issued a study highlighting the growing number of women on disability.

Source: Brianna Ehley, "Judges Who Rubber Stamp Disability Claims are Bankrupting the System," The Fiscal Times, June 10, 2014; "Systemic Waste and Abuse at the Social Security Administration: How Rubber-Stamping Disability Judges Cost Hundreds of Billions of Taxpayer Dollars," Staff Report, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, U.S. House of Representatives, June 10, 2014.

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