Coburn's report examined 300 approved applications for Social Security disability benefits. Its findings mirror an internal review the Social Security Administration conducted in 2011, which found insufficient reviews in 22 percent of disability determinations made by administrative law judges.
"I think Social Security is right on top of this," Coburn said.
Administrative law judges are under immense pressure to clear away a deep backlog of applications. Coburn's review uncovered examples of judges holding hearings that lasted only 10 minutes, at which the disability recipient didn't even speak. Some judges seemed to overtly ignore evidence indicating that applicants were probably able to return to work.
Coburn recommended a series of changes to the disability system, including updated standards for disability payments and a stronger quality-review process. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who leads the investigative subcommittee that produced the report, said he disagreed with just one recommendation: requiring a government representative at all hearings held by administrative law judges.
Because the government wants to cut down on improper payments, leaving more money to help people who are actually in need, a government representative would reduce the number of cases in which judges overlook relevant evidence, Coburn said. Levin said it would be an "expensive and time-consuming duplication."