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Judges: Social Security pushes approval of previously rejected disability claims

By Stephen Ohlemacher

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, June 27 2013 12:26 p.m. MDT

In this Friday, Jan. 11, 2013 file photo, the Social Security Administration's main campus is seen in Woodlawn, Md. U.S. House investigators say Social Security is approving state-rejected claims for disability benefits at strikingly high rates for people who might not deserve them. Compounding the problem, the agency often fails to do required follow-up reviews to make sure people still qualify for benefits months or years later.

Patrick Semansky, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

WASHINGTON — Driven to reduce a huge backlog of disability claims, Social Security is pushing judges to award benefits to people who may not deserve them, several current and former judges told Congress Thursday.

Larry Butler, an administrative law judge from Fort Myers, Fla., called the system "paying down the backlog."

A former Social Security judge, J.E. Sullivan, said, "The only thing that matters in the adjudication process is signing that final decision." Sullivan is now an administrative law judge for the Department of Transportation.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is investigating why many judges have high approval rates for claims already rejected twice by field offices or state agencies. Two current and two former judges spoke at a subcommittee hearing.

The number of people receiving Social Security disability benefits has increased by 44 percent over the past decade, pushing the trust fund that supports the program to the brink of insolvency.

Social Security officials say the primary reason for the increase is a surge in baby boomers who are more prone to disability as they age. Deputy Social Security Commissioner Glenn Sklar noted that the vast majority of disability claims are initially denied.

"I think the data kind of speaks for itself," Sklar told lawmakers.

To qualify for benefits, people are supposed to have disabilities that prevent them from working and are expected to last at least a year or result in death.

According to Social Security data, there were errors in 22 percent of the cases decided in 2011, Sklar said. He said some errors were procedural and did not necessarily result in incorrect decisions.

"The true wrong rate would be less than 10 percent," Sklar said.

Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That compares with 7.6 million a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.

An additional 8.3 million people get Supplemental Security Income, a separately funded disability program for low-income people.

Social Security disability claims are first processed through a network of local Social Security Administration field offices and state agencies called Disability Determination Services. About two-thirds of initial claims are rejected, according to agency statistics.

If your claim is rejected, you can ask the field office or state agency to reconsider. If your claim is rejected again, you can appeal to an administrative law judge, who is employed by Social Security.

In 2007, the average processing time for a hearing was 512 days. Today it is 375 days, Sklar said. The agency has reduced the wait time even as the number of applications has increased.

But the judges who testified Thursday said the quality of their decisions has suffered.

So far this budget year, the vast majority of judges have approved benefits in more than half the cases they've decided, even though they were reviewing applications typically rejected twice by state agencies, according to Social Security data.

Of the 1,560 judges who have decided at least 50 cases since October, 195 judges approved benefits in at least 75 percent of their cases, according to the data analyzed by congressional investigators.

"The Social Security Administration has failed to take steps to address the problem of rapid disability growth, probably because the agency has failed to recognize many of the problems," said Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., the subcommittee chairman.

None of the judges who testified spoke of being specifically ordered to award claims. Three said they had been pressured to decide cases without fully reviewing medical files.

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