As many as one-fifth of all those receiving Social Security disability probably don’t deserve the benefits, the president of the association for disability examiners told Congress on Wednesday, as lawmakers searched for ways to cut down on fraud in the fast-growing Social Security disability caseload.
Auditors said proving fraud is difficult, but weeding out bad applications or ending benefits for those who used to be disabled but have since regained the ability to work should be easier to do.
But Social Security Administration has a huge backlog in its regular review process, which the agency’s inspector general said could have meant as much as $1.1 billion in improper payments were made in 2011.
The findings came as lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee joined together in a striking show of bipartisanship, arguing that with the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund facing bankruptcy in just two years, the administration should be looking at every step to cut down on bogus payments.
“Several billion dollars are lost every year because of the backlog,” said Patrick P. O’Carroll Jr. the agency’s inspector general.
Mariana LaCanfora, acting deputy commissioner for the agency, said it doesn’t disagree, but she put the blame back on Congress, saying Social Security hasn’t been given the funds to cut down on the backlog — something with which Democrats on the committee agreed.
“We all get an ‘F’ for not properly funding you,” said Rep. Jackie Speier of California, the ranking Democrat on the health care and entitlements subcommittee.
The hearing comes in the wake of a series of high-profile fraud cases that found dozens of bogus disability claims and, in some cases, appear to show administrative law judges rubber-stamping applications to approve cases that should have been rejected.
Jennifer Nottingham, president of the National Association of Disability Examiners, said her ballpark guess for how many applicants getting benefits are probably undeserving is “something like 20 percent.”
In a bipartisan letter sent to Social Security on Tuesday, Ms. Speier and Rep. James Lankford, Oklahoma Republican and chairman of the subcommittee, laid out 11 recommendations. Among those were keeping up with reviews of previous benefit decisions to make sure people are still disabled, using social media to try to screen out fraud, and regularly reviewing the cases of judges who approve a high percentage of applications.
Scott Daniels, a lawyer at Markhoff & Mittman in White Plains, N.Y., who handles disability claims, said the cases of bad-apple judges are “isolated incidents” and said their conduct shouldn’t tar the whole program. He also said if the agency is going to review judges, it should do so equally.
“Along with judges that have high approval ratings, there are also judges out there with very high denial ratings. These judges too should be reviewed to ensure their evaluations are correct within the framework of the law,” he told The Washington Times in an email.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Daniel Bertoni, the Government Accountability Office’s director for income security programs, said Social Security also needs to update its definitions of disability, which were developed decades ago, before the information-technology economy made it possible for those with some physical disabilities to still hold down productive jobs
“They need to take a more modern approach to disability,” he said. “Their criteria, their listings, their listings of jobs in the national economy, have not kept up to date with a transition to what disability looks like today.”