Nobody wants to prevent any disabled person from receiving the most generous support allowed under the Social Security program. But every disability benefit dollar that goes to an ineligible recipient, either because of administrative inefficiency or criminal fraud, is a dollar denied to those who need it. That is why a new report from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee should concern every compassionate American. The report describes a program with 20 million beneficiaries that is so lacking in basic managerial oversight that hundreds of billions of dollars in disability benefits are being lost to waste and fraud.
The report focused on the Administrative Law Judges working for the Social Security Administration. These officials are key links in the federal government's chain of responsibility for deciding who gets disability benefits and how much money though should receive. “Red-flag” ALJs consider appeals from individuals who were previously denied benefits. Even though many of these applications had been twice denied by other ALJ officials, the red-flag AJLs approved 75 percent or more of the cases that came before them.
Massive amounts of tax dollars are at stake in the ALJs’ decisions. According to the oversight committee’s investigators, “between 2005 and 2013, ‘red-flag’ ALJs placed 1.3 million individuals on federal disability, at a lifetime cost of approximately $400 billion.” The investigators also paid particular attention to three ALJs who approved 90 percent or more of the cases they considered. “These ALJs awarded benefits in nearly every decision they made, issued an extremely large number of allowances without holding a hearing, and were subject to numerous complaints from employees within their offices,” the report said.
The report’s description of the trio should outrage every taxpayer:
• ALJ Charles Bridges approved 95 percent of the cases he reviewed and awarded approximately $4.5 billion during the period. Reviewers of his work found evidence suggesting that 60 percent of his cases were decided incorrectly in part because he rarely used vocational experts and, when he did, he consulted them after he had made decisions on benefits.
• ALJ David Daugherty approved benefits in 99 percent of his cases, awarding in the process an estimated $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits during the period studied. The committee studied a random sample of 128 of his cases, and found only one hearing that lasted longer than five minutes. An internal review said he regularly missed work and was often late when he did show up and, more disturbing, colluded with claimant representatives.
• ALJ Harry Taylor approved 94 percent of his cases and awarded around $2.5 billion in lifetime benefits from 2005-2013. A review found that medical expert assessments in many of his cases conflicted with his decisions on benefit eligibility. He often fell asleep on the job and disciplinary actions were taken only after colleagues complained for four years.
Such incompetence could continue for years on end because SSA officials made no effort to monitor the ALJs' performance, according to the report. Not coincidentally, the disability program’s trust fund will be empty come 2016.