MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican Sen. Rand Paul said Wednesday that some people "game the system" to receive disability payments they don't deserve and later criticized the federal government for not doing an adequate job policing a system he says needs reform.
During a meeting with Republican state lawmakers, Paul said fraud is a widespread problem in disability programs that help people who are injured at work. He joked that "half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts."
"Join the club," Paul said. "Everybody over 40 has a back pain."
The Kentucky Republican added: "We all know people who are horrifically disabled and can't work, but if you have able-bodied people taking the money, there's not going to be anything left for people who are truly disabled."
The Democratic National Committee seized on the comments, calling them offensive. Alex Lawson, the executive director of the advocacy group Social Security Works, said the U.S. has among the strictest standards for assessing disability claims in the work and accused Paul of trying to creating a "false crisis."
"One in 5 men and nearly 1 in 6 women die within five years of being approved for benefits," Lawson said in a statement. "Sen. Paul should be ashamed of himself for attacking Americans living with disabilities, many of whom are veterans."
In an interview with The Associated Press, Paul dismissed the criticism.
"They're arguing for fraud," he said. "I'm arguing for eliminating fraud."
Paul's initial comments followed a question from a state lawmaker about how states could wrest control of government from Washington. The senator said states are better prepared to administer a number of federal programs, including Medicaid, and then turned to disability programs.
It wasn't clear what disability program Paul was referring to. About 11 million people in the U.S. receive disability benefits via Social Security, including 9 million disabled workers and nearly 2 million children of disabled workers. Monthly benefits for disabled workers average $1,146.
Paul's trip to New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, came as he continues to take steps toward a White House campaign. While he often takes unscripted questions from his audiences, Paul said the intense scrutiny on his comments won't change how he interacts with voters.
"I didn't think what I said was controversial, that we should eliminate fraud from a disability program," he said. "Overall that's a judgment voters make. Do they want someone who is frank and genuine, or someone who is guarded?"
Associated Press writer Stephen Ohlemacher in Washington contributed to this report.