The Social Security Administration is tightening the leash on its disability benefits program in an attempt to reduce fraud, such as the recent scheme involving a former Huntington administrative law judge.
The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that the agency is set to rewrite the job descriptions for its 1,500 administrative law judges to give officials more oversight and latitude in cracking down on judges who award benefits at abnormal rates.
The move is a response to cases like that of former Huntington Judge David Daugherty, who was accused of running a guaranteed benefits assembly line out of the district office.
In October, Congressional investigators accused Daugherty of scheming with a Kentucky lawyer to approve more than 1,800 cases from 2006 to 2010.
The lawyer, Eric Conn, received more than $4.5 million in attorney fees over that time, making him the third highest-paid disability lawyer in the country. Investigators also found about $96,000 in unexplained cash deposits in Daugherty's bank accounts over that time.
The investigation followed a 2011 Wall Street Journal report that called out Daugherty for approving all but about a half-dozen of the appeals that came before his court in the prior year. Daugherty stepped down from the bench shortly after the report was published.
The changes are also a response to dwindling reserves in the Social Security disability trust fund, driven by a weak economy and an increase in beneficiaries. Critics have said the public's perception that it is relatively easy to get disability benefits have also contributed to the increase in beneficiaries.
In West Virginia, 8.8 percent of the state's 18-to-64-year-old population is receiving disability benefits - the highest rate in the country. Roughly 120,000 disabled West Virginia workers, spouses and children collected about $119 million in monthly benefits last year, according to Social Security data.
According to the job description for the administrative law judges - who review claims that were initially rejected by Social Security field office officials - they are allowed to operate with "complete individual independence," meaning they can award or deny benefits based on their own judgments.