- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Social Security Administration allows certain judges to stay on the job despite rubber-stamping nearly all of the requests for benefits they see, sometimes from people who’ve already been denied two times, a scathing report by House investigators said Thursday.

Rep. Darrell Issa, California Republican and departing chairman of the House oversight committee, released the report to sum up his panel’s long-running scrutiny of administrative law judges at the agency.

His report said judges who demonstrate “gross incompetence” have potentially cost taxpayers billions of dollars, threatening the solvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance program and the Supplemental Security Income program, which together serve nearly 20 million Americans and dole out $200 billion in benefits each year.

The average lifetime disability benefit is estimated at $300,000, so “any improper decisions that award benefits are incredibly costly for the program and for taxpayers,” the report said.

Mr. Issa is worried that too many the judges are granting claims from people who already were turned away by one or two experts at a lower tier of the process, largely because the agency encourages judges to clear as many cases as they can.

A culture of “quantity” over “quality” drives up spending and puts deserving beneficiaries at risk, he said.

“As a result of the agency’s emphasis on high volume adjudications over quality decision-making, the credibility of the disability appeals process has been eroded, and needs large-scale reform,” his report said.

In June, Republican lawmakers held hearings on the issue and concluded that 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.

Democrats expressed concern, too, but also worried that deserving constituents would be denied benefits if a crackdown went beyond “outlier” judges who grant more than 90 percent of the appeals they see.

Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin told the committee her agency needed more money to carry out its duties. She also 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 — are becoming rare.

But Mr. Issa is concerned that agency officials are not cracking down on too-lenient judges.

His committee looked at 48 “focused reviews” the agency performed as part of a program to evaluate and improve the judges’ decision-making.

“In practice, the program is effectively meaningless,” the report said. “Rather than disciplining or removing an ALJ when overwhelming evidence of incompetence exists, the agency allows the ALJ to continue deciding a full caseload, hoping that the ALJ agrees to training and that ALJ performance improves. Unfortunately, ALJs who have received training generally fail to show improvement.”

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