Senate report highlights Social Security disability benefit abuses

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Photo - Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., releases a Senate investigative subcommittee report today that finds administrative law judges too frequently award Social Security Disability benefits. AP Photo.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., releases a Senate investigative subcommittee report today that finds administrative law judges too frequently award Social Security Disability benefits. AP Photo.
News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten

A woman was awarded Social Security disability benefits because of "crippling hand pain" from carpel tunnel syndrome, but still managed to work as a bartender.

A judge coached a disability applicant to lie about paying rent to boost his payments from the government.

I think you could flip a coin for anybody who came before the Social Security commission for disability and get it right just as often as the ALJs do, - Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.

A man with history of cocaine addiction was approved for disability because of back pain and headaches, which he claimed could be controlled enough for him to work if he got the prescription painkiller he wanted.

Those are examples described in a Senate investigative report being released today of cases in which administrative law judges overruled Social Security officials and awarded disability benefits to people who appealed the agency's decision. Unlike federal court judges who interpret the law, ALJs focus on compliance with regulatory standards and processes.

Decisions by ALJs in Social Security disability appeals are riddled with errors and signs of sloppy judgment, according to the report from the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs subcommittee on investigations.

More than a quarter of the decisions reviewed by the committee were based on insufficient and often contradictory evidence, according to the report, a finding that is consistent with the Social Security Administration's own internal reviews.

The report was prepared by Republicans on the subcommittee. However, its factual findings are supported by subcommittee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who did not sign on because of concerns about some of the recommendations, according to a Levin aide.

The findings highlight the concern that, as people with questionable claims are approved for disability payments, they are depleting the Social Security trust fund and jeopardizing future benefits for those who truly qualify, said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., ranking minority member of the subcommittee.

The study reviewed 300 cases in which disability benefits were granted. It did not assess whether the people should have qualified for benefits, but rather whether the decisions to award benefits were adequately supported with medical evidence, properly documented and consistent with legal requirements, Coburn said.

"I think you could flip a coin for anybody who came before the Social Security commission for disability and get it right just as often as the ALJs (administrative law judges) do," Coburn said.

Coburn said he personally reviewed about 100 of the cases, drawn randomly from counties in Virginia, Alabama and Oklahoma. About 75 percent should not have been approved for benefits, Coburn said. The Oklahoma Republican is a practicing physician.

To get to an ALJ, an applicant for disability must have been turned down twice in agency reviews. Judges are supposed to determine whether the medical evidence supports a finding that the applicant cannot work.

Case files can run to hundreds of pages. Yet some judges churn out more than a thousand rulings per year, according to the report. That is because their performance is rated on how many cases they process, not the quality of their decisions, Coburn said.

One 87-year-old judge in Oklahoma City, who averaged about 1,800 disability cases per year between 2007 and 2009, approved between 90 and 100 percent of them annually.

Another judge awarded disability benefits after a hearing that lasted only three minutes.

Among the recommendations in the report is that the Social Security Administration have a representative at appeals hearings to ensure evidence indicating a claimant is not disabled is presented.

The subcommittee will question top ALJs from the Social Security Administration's disability office during a hearing this morning.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's special reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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