Facing backlash from scandals and the specter of running out of money, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is making changes in 2014 to curb fraud in its disability programs.
Today, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has roughly 11 million beneficiaries receiving $140 billion each year, with 3 million new applications coming in. SSDI is supposed to be for those with disabilities who can no longer support themselves. But as WORLD has previously reported, it’s also become a go-to place for welfare when times get tough, growing 44 percent during the last decade.
The Wall Street Journal first raised questions about suspicious activity in 2011, helping tip off Congress, which delved much deeper into the problems this year. Oklahoma Republicans Sen. Tom Coburn and Rep. James Lankford spearheaded bipartisan investigations.
In Journal and Congressional reports, the highest profile cases of fraud came from administrative law judges, SSA employees who hear appeals from claimants who have been denied twice already. Judges faced a years-long backlog of appeals, and in Congressional hearings, some testified they faced pressure to decide cases without fully reviewing them.
After several Congressional hearings in the summer and fall—some of which may lead to criminal charges—the Journal reported last week the agency plans to update its procedures in at least six ways. For example, employment literature that agency officials use to help determine if a person really can’t work doesn’t yet factor the ways technology allows people to work from home or in different capacities.
Those changes are still murky and will take time, the Journal reported. Significant, immediate changes, however, will affect administrative law judges’ jobs.
The agency is rewriting job descriptions to give officials more power to crack down on judges who award disproportionately high numbers of cases. A few of the 1,500 judges allegedly participated in fraud, hearing thousands of cases and approving more than 90 percent of appeals. Judges will now be restricted to just 800 cases, according to the Journal.
According to a draft reviewed by the Journal, the job descriptions will no longer include the words “complete individual independence,” and judges will now be “subject to the supervision and management” of other SSA officials. Some officials had testified they felt powerless against suspicious judges because of “judicial independence,” which gives judges the freedom to be objective—but has been abused.
In theory, holding judges accountable with more oversight should decrease fraud. But it’s no guarantee. Union officials with the Association of Administrative Law Judges told the Journal they fear being coerced into decisions. Officials must find a balance between judicial independence and accountability for poor judgement, and as some judges believed they were pushed to approve cases before, some fear the opposite may occur now, with heavy consequences.
And agency officials are still working against the clock. Even if they fix the fraud, the disability program could go insolvent as early as next year. When its trust fund runs out, payroll taxes will only cover 80 percent of monthly benefits many hold as a lifeline. According to conservative columnist and Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, “The very fact that a liberal administration is taking this step is a sign that the Social Security system’s troubles are real.”
In the meantime, while lawmakers face gridlock on the House and Senate floors, they are working together behind the scenes to solve a universally acknowledged problem. Lankford’s Democratic committee colleague, Rep. Jackie Speier of California, commended Lankford in November for not deserting the issue after a single hearing in June: “You’re sticking to it. I’m proud that you are.”