Disability benefits judges in the spotlight

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This is a photograph of a Social Security Disability claim with the word Denided stamped in red on it.

Disparity in adminstrative judges decisions questioned

In a joint hearing July 11, two Congressional committees questioned Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue about disparities regarding how administrative law judges approve Social Security Disabilities Insurance benefits.

The hearing, held by the House Judiciary subcommittee and the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, came in response to a Wall Street journal story in May about David Daugherty, an administrative law judge from Huntington, West Virginia who hears appeals from individuals denied SSDI benefits. Daugherty, who was placed on administrative leave, awarded benefits in all 729 cases he saw in the first six months of fiscal year 2011. He has since retired.

The case “starkly reveals how the near complete lack of accountability offers an abundance of chances for abuse,” said Rep. Howard Coble (R., N.C.) at the hearing, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal. “Meanwhile, the claimants who suffer, not to mention the American taxpayer, get stuck with the bill.”

Judges normally approve benefits in about 60 percent of their decisions.

Astrue, a Republican, defended the administration’s disciplinary process, noting that 58 administrative law judges have been disciplined since he became head of the agency in 2007, according to an article by the Legal Times.

However, he also said that though he had evidence that some judges approve a disproportionate number of benefits, his power is limited because federal law prevents him from interfering with judges’ decisions, according to the Wall Street Journal article.

Some Democrats suggested that the hearing was the first step by Republicans in a plan to slash SSDI benefits.

“I fear that this hearing is really just a backdoor attempt to undermine Social Security by those opposed to having a social safety net,” Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said. “The (administrative law judges) are being used as whipping boys and girls.”

Another recent study by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University showed significant disparities between judges in the likelihood that people with disabilities receive SSDI benefits. However, Astrue criticized the report for its “methodological sloppiness” and overemphasis on outliers, in reference to judges with exceptionally high or low approval rates of disability claims.

The spat is not the first between the Social Security Administration and Syracuse University in recent months. Another TRAC report showed the administration had dramatically reduced the  average wait time for appeals of SSDI benefits from 514 days in 2008 to 369 days in 2010. However, Astrue criticized the report for emphasizing the expansion of the number of individuals waiting for appeals hearings, which is to be expected as the number of SSDI claims has expanded signficantly amid the economic downturn.

The SSDI program provided about $124 million in benefits to 10.2 million people in 2010. Some government estimates predict the program’s trust fund could shore up by 2018, prompting a renewed urgency to modify the system.

The SSDI program is one of two Social Security programs for people with disabilities, along with the Supplemental Security Income program.