More than $2 billion in “questionable” payments was paid out to nearly 25,000 Disability Insurance (DI) recipients, according to a recent report by the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of the Inspector General. The report states that 44 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) with particularly high numbers of decisions and high rates of benefit approval were responsible for wrongfully doling out the $2 billion in DI benefits to 24,900 individuals over the past seven years. On a per-judge basis, that’s $45 million in wasted taxpayer dollars, not including each ALJ’s annual salary of up to $167,000.
The SSA’s investigation examined a sample of 275 decisions from the 44 ALJs and found that nearly 80 percent of the judges’ decisions did not comply with SSA policies. Their decisions often lacked sufficient support or the ALJs’ wrongfully applied medical-vocational guidelines. Only 11 percent of the ALJs’ decisions “provided a well-supported rationale.”
The investigation and subsequent report came at the request of Representative Darrell Issa (R–CA), chair of the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform. Recent stories and investigations—such as an Oversight Committee report showing nearly $10 billion in lifetime DI payments awarded by just three highly problematic ALJs—have shed light on a number of problems within the DI decision-making process: insufficient oversight, such as quality reviews; lack of transparency in decisions; relative ease and reduced workloads for approving as opposed to denying applications; and some instances of outright fraud and abuse.
While DI reform is not a popular issue to undertake, some policymakers have taken on the difficult task. For example, H.R. 5260 would require increased transparency, including publication of ALJs’ productivity, processing time, and decision outcomes, all of which could cut down on problematic decisions and questionable payments. It would also require, in statute, continuance of quality reviews that have been associated with a reduction in the number of problematic decisions. As the SSA report notes, increased oversight and quality reviews of ALJs (as well as the departure of a significant number of highly permissive ALJs) has contributed to a sizeable decline in the number of problematic ALJ decisions in recent years.
Unless Congress acts soon, the DI trust fund will run out of money in 2016. At that time, benefits would have to be cut by 20 percent across the board, bringing the average benefit to below the federal poverty level. Ensuring accuracy, fairness, and consistency in ALJ decisions is an important step toward preserving the DI program for truly disabled individuals.