The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia


June 12, 2014

Broken system

Social Security disability program must be reformed

May is National Disability Awareness Month, but the real eye-opener on disability came this week in Washington where four administrative judges who decide federal disability claims testified before a House committee.

The hearing before the House Oversight Committee was called to get to the bottom of complaints, similar to the Veterans Administration hospitals, of lengthy delays in the Social Security Administration’s disability claims process.

These administrative judges, from all appearances, decided to speed things up by handing out disability claims like Halloween candy to the last group of trick-or-treaters coming down the sidewalk.

One of the judges was Harry C. Taylor II of Charleston. Taylor had an approval rate of nearly 94 percent of the cases that came before him.

Since 2005, Taylor rubber-stamped more than $2.5 billion in lifetime Social Security disability benefits, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

It’s nice work if you can get it, giving away billions of dollars of other people’s money.

Democrats on the House committee said the judges, all of whom had similar approval percentages in disability cases, were not typical of the entire system.

We’re not so sure.

Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, was created in the 1950s to assist American workers who may have been injured on the job or in an accident and could no longer work.

It was a godsend to many workers who would otherwise find themselves in a terrible situation, and it has proved effective in helping those in need.

But like so many government programs, it has grown into a massive and unmanageable bureaucratic mountain.

Disability payments are the fastest-growing segment of Social Security, increasing to an annual cost of $135 billion that is roughly triple what it cost in 1970. That is 18 percent of the annual Social Security budget.

Part of that increase is due to more women being in the workforce and thus eligible. But a large part of it is the loosening of rules on just what qualifies as a disability covered by SSDI.

Depression is now the No. 1 cause of disability claims, which can run from obesity to skin cancer to back pain to sleep apnea and more.

But the approval process has been warped by bureaucratic tinkering. In fact, the rules have become so bizarre, disability claims are processed more quickly for applicants if they can prove they can’t speak English, a current complaint of Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

This is certainly not how SSDI should be run, and it’s definitely not what American taxpayers should be paying for.

The percentage of Americans receiving SSDI has increased from 2.4 percent to 4.6 percent of the working-age population of 25 to 64 years old.

According to Our Generation, a nonpartisan group that tracks Social Security, 7 percent of all workers eligible will be on disability rolls by 2030 at a cost of $190 billion annually.

A large part of this story has been the poor economy since 2008. Many people unable to find work have turned to SSDI, and we understand why that has occurred.

Investor’s Business Daily reports that between 2009 to April 2012, the number of people who signed up for disability benefits was twice the number of people who started new jobs.

We also understand that most people who are receiving SSDI benefits have earned them.

But all of us also know people, some in our own families, who say they can’t work but lead surprisingly active lifestyles funded by federal disability payments.

The bottom line is that these costs are not sustainable, and this should be an area where both Democrats and Republicans can work together in order to make sure only those who really need disability benefits have access to them.

Social Security has enough problems without the burden of an out-of-control disability program that is siphoning off too much funding in order to pay dubious claims.

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