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Policy: Entitlements

D.C.-area disability rolls grow as more opt out of job market

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Local,DC,Maryland,Virginia,Matt Connolly,Entitlements

The number of Washington-area residents turning to federal disability benefits is soaring as they seek to escape

a weak

job market in a region already dependent on government spending.

The amount of money spent on disability benefits for the 4 million residents in the District and its neighboring counties has more than doubled in the past decade, from about $25.8 million in 2001 to more than $55.7 million in 2011, according to Social Security Administration data.

That's thanks to thousands more residents receiving benefits. The number of Prince George's County residents on disability rose 63 percent to 14,930 people in 2011, the highest in the region, while Montgomery County increased 61 percent to 9,900 people on disability, according to the Social Security Administration.

The big hurt
Disabled workers, 2001 Disabled workers, 2011 Money spent on disability, 2001 Money spent on disability, 2011
D.C. 8,406 13,456 $6,180,000 $13,217,000
Montgomery 6,145 9,900 $5,334,000 $11,554,000
Prince George's 9,155 14,930 $7,974,000 $17,813,000
Fairfax 5,060 7,950 $4,449,000 $9,696,000
Arlington 1,165 1,600 $992,000 $1,840,000
Alexandria 1,005 1,410 $845,000 $1,606,000
Source: Social Security Administration

The number of D.C. residents jumped 60 percent, and the number of Fairfax County residents rose by 57 percent, the former to 13,456 and the latter to 7,950.

The growth of disability filings in the

Washington area is not far off from the rest of the nation -- even though it ranks second in the country in median household income. The number of U.S. workers receiving disability jumped 63 percent over the past decade, from 5.3 million in 2001 to 8.6 million in 2011.

The massive increase has highlighted concerns that inefficiencies within the disability system have led to more people receiving checks and longer wait times. A chief complaint is the subjective nature of many of the disabilities being claimed.

"It's a lot of judgment calls," said Thomas Firey, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute. "The process itself is kind of slanted toward finding in favor of the people filing if the people push it far enough."

In 2011, about 34 percent of newly disabled workers were diagnosed with back pain and other musculoskeletal problems, while about 19 percent were diagnosed with mental illnesses and other developmental disabilities, according to a National Public Radio investigation. Such issues are hard to screen for, adding to the problem-laden nature of many disability claims.

As applications for disability have soared, some accountability measures have slowed. A 2010 audit found that the Social Security Administration's number of completed continuing disability reviews, used to detect fraud and avoid overpayments, dropped by 65 percent from fiscal 2004 to fiscal 2008.

Last month, Social Security Administration Inspector General Patrick P. O'Connell Jr. told Congress

that there's a backlog of 1.2 million disability reviews. If the reviews had been conducted when they were due, O'Connell said, the administration would have avoided paying at least $556 million in 2011.

In an earlier testimony, administration Deputy Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin told Congress that the administration's 25 disability investigations units secured just 97 convictions for identity theft, fraud and Social Security number misuse in fiscal 2011, resulting in $6.8 million in restitution.

More residents on the disability rolls is good for states like Maryland and Virginia, which don't have to pay welfare costs once the Social Security Administration steps in. While part of the increase is due to an aging baby boomer generation, leading to more debilitating injuries, experts are looking to a weak economic recovery

to explain why so many people are giving up on their job searches in favor of a disability check.

The average disability payout is a little more than $13,500 a year, but it's better than nothing.

"The state of the economy has a big effect," said Pamela Loprest, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "A lot of people do want to work, and they're unable to find a job."

While states do have disability programs, most are aimed at helping the disabled find jobs.

"Our goal is to have people have jobs with benefits so that they can be independent," said A.J. Hostetler, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services, adding that the department serves more than 82,000 clients a year.

If jobs and other resources are there, Loprest said, more people will opt for employment over disability benefits.

"Really, intervention before they go on these rolls is best," she said, "To have some system that helps them keep working instead of incentivizing them to get out of work."

mconnolly@washingtonexaminer.com

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