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September 13, 2012

Coburn: Social Security disability program needs upgrade

Oklahoma identified as problem area

NORMAN — With the Social Security disability program teetering on bankruptcy, a report released today identifies Oklahoma as one of the worst-case scenarios for disability benefit claims.

A subcommittee headed by ranking minority member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., reported findings today on improving benefit award decisions for Social Security disability programs.

“We carefully chose three areas of the country that had different concentrations of people receiving disability benefits — from high to low,” Coburn said.

“One of the places we looked at was Oklahoma City in my own home state. It was and is my firm belief that if Congress is going to get serious about reforming government, oversight must start at home.  Unfortunately, some of the worst problems I saw were in my own home state.”  

 The U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations has conducted several bipartisan inquiries into aspects of the Social Security Administration’s disability programs during the past two years.  The Subcommittee undertook a review of the quality of disability claims approved by the agency at the initial application stage and each level of review, findings, and recommendations.

“Over the last several years, it has become clearer that the disability programs are teetering on financial bankruptcy,” Coburn said. “According to the Congressional Budget Office, as soon as three or four years from now, there may not be enough money to keep paying out full benefits.”

The Social Security Trustees have determined that the disability insurance program could be exhausted by 2016 because disability rolls have grown faster than anticipated. A worst-case scenario has the fund depleted as early as 2015.

The Social Security Administration has 5.9 million Americans to the disability rolls since January 2009.  In 2011, 10.6 million people were receiving over $128 billion in disability insurance payments, Coburn reports.  

Referenced in the subcommittee report is David Autor of MIT Economics. Autor has researched the labor market and the rising numbers of disability claims.

“The (SSDI) program is ineffective in assisting the vast majority of workers with less severe disabilities to reach their employment potential or to earn their own way. In fact, the program provides strong incentives to applicants and beneficiaries to remain out of the labor force permanently, and it provides no incentive to employers to implement cost-effective accommodations that would enable disabled employees to remain on the job,” Autor writes in his work, “The Unsustainable Rise of the Disability Rolls in the United States: Causes, Consequences, and Policy Options.”

The subcommittee report on Improving the Quality of Benefit Award Decisions seeks to answer questions  “as to whether benefits are going to those Congress intended when it created the disability programs.”

“The question is: are benefits going only to those who are supposed to be getting to them?” Coburn said. “Millions of our neighbors depend on these programs to replace a portion of the income they earned before they became disabled. For many of them, the disability programs are a lifeline, without which they would be overwhelmed.

 “For the past 18 months, the Subcommittee has conducted a bipartisan investigation into how well the Social Security Administration is running these programs. Our hope is that where we find problems, we might also offer solutions.”

Coburn stressed that case load and “enormous pressure on judges to push through as many

cases as possible,” contributed to the problems.

“In May 2007, Commissioner Michael Astrue told Congress he would end the growing wait time for an ALJ hearing,” Coburn said. “To reduce this wait time the agency encouraged judges, where appropriate, to consider skipping hearings and write decisions ‘on the record.’   

 “One judge we encountered in our investigation played a big role in this effort,” Coburn said. “Between 2007 and 2009, ALJ Howard O’Bryan, from the Oklahoma City office, single-handedly decided 5,401 cases — almost all of them on the record and without a hearing. His decision rate was nearly four times faster than the average judge’s.  In terms of cost, Judge Howard O’Bryan alone awarded an estimated $1.62 billion in lifetime benefits to claimants in just three years.

 “I was at first astounded that one person could decide 1,800 cases per year – especially since each case is

nearly 500 pages long.  On average, he decided five cases per day, 365 days per year. I soon learned, though, that he could move through them so quickly because the quality of his work left so much to be desired.”

Coburn said the Oklahoma judge cut and pasted electronic images of medical evidence into his findings. There were contradictory opinions and findings in the cases, so much so that the agency asked Judge O’Bryan to improve his decision writing.

“But, instead of reducing his caseload to a manageable level, the agency began shipping him cases from around the nation,” Coburn said. “He told us that at one point he was asked to do 500 cases just from Little Rock, Arkansas — an average judge’s caseload for the an entire year. When he finished those, he was sent cases from Atlanta, Houston, Greenville, Des Moines and Yakima, Washington.

“Why the Social Security Administration did this is a question I hope to have answered today,” Coburn said. “My suspicion is that they wanted to erase the backlog, and cared little how they got it done.”

 While Oklahoma was one of the worst offenders, Coburn said the news is not all bad.

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