Social Security chief takes heat over ‘outlier’ judges

Issa seeks discipline for those who ‘rubber stamp’ disability claims

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House Republicans told Social Security’s acting chief Wednesday to find a way to discipline and fire a number of “outlier” judges who approve nearly all the federal disability claims that rise to their level of review.

House oversight committee members rejected Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin’s assertion that she needs more money, saying instead that she needs to get a handle on a set of administrative law judges who “rubber stamp” more than 90 percent of the cases they see — a trend that led lawmakers to think too many people are gaming the system.


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Ms. Colvin said the vast majority of the administration’s judges are hard-working and diligent, and that so-called outliers — four of them testified to the committee Tuesday — are becoming rare.

“We have had a problem. It’s getting better,” Ms. Colvin testified.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and oversight panel chairman, said he wants to see proactive steps to discipline the judges. He released a staff report Tuesday that said Social Security’s judges allowed 1.3 million people to gain federal disability benefits at the lifetime cost of about $400 billion from 2005 to 2013, despite “red flags” raised when they’d previously been denied.

“The numbers speak for themselves,” Mr. Issa told Ms. Colvin on Wednesday.

Lawmakers said something needs to be done about the judges, because the program’s reserve is set to run dry by 2016, imperiling funds for genuinely disabled Americans.

Committee Democrats, too, said they are concerned about the “outlier” judges. But they also worry about constituents who were unfairly denied or never received a hearing.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said some constituents in his district died while waiting up to 17 months for a hearing.
“That is an outrage, and we’re better than that,” Mr. Cummings said.

Mr. Issa’s report said enrollment in Social Security’s disability program has grown “unsustainably” over the past 20 years. After 2016, the administration will only have enough incoming funds to pony up 75 percent of enrollees’ benefits, according to Wednesday’s testimony.

Ms. Colvin said lawmakers deserve some blame for failing to properly fund continuing disability reviews. Those are periodic checks that she said could root out people who no longer deserve disability benefits.

But Mr. Issa said throwing money at the problem is not the answer. He flashed a chart up on the hearing room’s large TVs that shows funding rising — without better results.

Ms. Colvin was skeptical of his data and said she would like to review the figures with her staff.

Republicans demanded to know why some judges with high approval rates are still hearing cases.

Ms. Colvin said the law prevents her from disciplining judges who lean on their perceived expertise instead of protocol, and that high allowance rates alone cannot be the basis for putting a judge on leave.

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