Thursday, January 15, 2015

Disability Rubber-Stamping is What Some in Congress Seem to Want

Just prior to Christmas, the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee released a troubling report on how the Social Security Administration has overseen the adjudication of disability insurance applications. SSA has long had a backlog of applications awaiting decisions, due to a process (set in place by Congress) that gives applicants multiple levels of appeal before a final decision is made. As a result, applicants usually wait a year or more before getting a hearing. This Washington Post article provides some interesting background.

All of this puts pressure on the agency to move applicants as quickly as possible. As the Committee’s report states:

The agency was singularly focused on churning out a large volume of dispositions, which led to inappropriate benefit awards. It takes significantly less time for an ALJ to award benefits than to deny them, and decisions awarding benefits are not appealed.

In effect, some SSA disability judges were rubber-stamping applications and, the Committee argues, the agency wasn’t doing much to stop it. To be fair, since the judges are nominally independent, it’s not an easy problem to fix. At any rate, since each incorrect granting of disability benefits costs the program about $300,000 in future benefits, rubber-stamping is a big deal.

I wouldn’t go so far to say as that SSA doesn’t care about the quality of disability decisions. But here’s how the incentives work: higher quality decisions demand more staff and more time. The agency doesn’t have a lot of each and Congress isn’t so keen on paying for more. When wait times are long, constituents complain to their Congressmen, who then complain to the agency.

Moving decisions quickly eases this pressure and many elected officials don’t seem to care if adding people to the disability rolls exhausts the program’s trust fund more quickly. The consensus position among most Democratic lawmakers (and, I’m guessing, some Republicans) is simply to paper over the disability program’s funding gap with tax revenues taken from the retirement program, with no reforms to make the program or its decision-making work better. Republicans recently passed a rule against fixing disability solely through a revenue transfer, but will need to come up with reform ideas of its own.

In any case, if Congress shows that it cares about the speed of disability decisions but not their quality, it’s likely they’ll get what they want.

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