Overdue clean-up of disability program
THE federal government may finally be getting a handle on the runaway Social Security Disability Insurance Program.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Social Security Administration is "tightening its grip on 1,500 administrative law judges to ensure that disability benefits are awarded consistently and to reign in fraud in the program."
SSDI payments have risen dramatically in recent years.
A combination of the economic downturn driving more unemployed workers to the program and liberal awarding of benefits by some judges has raised SSDI rolls 20 percent in the last six years to 12 million people, with an annual budget of $135 billion.
At this rate, the disability program will have spent all its reserves by 2016, forcing either an increase in payroll taxes or a cut in benefits.
The Journal reports that the administrative law judges will no longer have "complete individual independence."
Instead, they will be subject to supervision and management from the Social Security Administration.
The union representing the judges says it fears that will open the process to political interference, but that's a straw man. Many of these disability judges need someone looking over their shoulder.
The poster boy for waste, fraud and abuse in SSDI is D.B. Daugherty of Huntington. As a Social Security administrative law judge, Daugherty awarded benefits in virtually every case . . . thousands of them. He worked closely with attorney Eric Conn, who advertised heavily in West Virginia and Kentucky, looking for potential clients.
According to the Journal, Daugherty once told a colleague, "Some of these judges act like it's their own damn money we're giving away." Daugherty resigned after the Journal first reported the story in 2011.
Meanwhile, earlier this year federal authorities arrested 75 people in Puerto Rico on charges of defrauding SSDI out of millions of dollars. A former Social Security employee teamed with complicit doctors to falsely diagnose individuals as mentally incapable of working.
But the problem is not just the outliers like Daugherty and the Puerto Rican scam.
As the Journal reports, there is widespread disparity in how judges rule. "Dozens of judges awarded benefits in 90 percent of their cases, while others were much less likely to find someone unable to find work, denying benefits in more than 80 percent of their cases, data showed."
SSDI is an essential part of the country's safety net. Those who are impaired, either in mind or body, and cannot work are entitled by law to support.
However, it's important to remember that SSDI is not another option for the unemployed, nor should it be an easy target for scammers.
Politicians like to say they can save taxpayer dollars by tightening up on waste, fraud and abuse — it's easier than proposing real budget cuts — but in the case of SSDI, they're right about the profligate misspending.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.