Judges called to answer for disability approvals

The House Oversight Committee chairman said Tuesday that hundreds of thousands of people wrongfully placed on federal disability are costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) released a report saying between 2005 and 2013, administrative law judges (ALJs) have put 1.3 million people on disability despite their cases being denied by the Social Security Administration at least once, and most having been denied at least twice.

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The report estimates the lifetime cost for supporting those people is $400 billion and criticizes the administration for not reviewing the quality of decisions made by the judges.

Issa in particular targets three ALJs, Charles Bridges, David Daugherty and Harry Taylor, two of whom were called before the committee.

According to the report, Bridges approved 95 percent of cases that came before him and Taylor approved 94 percent. Together they awarded about $7 billion in lifetime disability benefits between 2005 and 2013.

Daugherty approved of 99 percent of cases between 2005 and his 2011 retirement which are estimated to cost taxpayers $2.5 billion.

Bridges and Taylor were called before the committee Tuesday to testify on the subject, as was Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who has been ringing the bell on potential disability waste for years.

Coburn says a quarter of ALJs are not following their own rules when giving a verdict on whether to award a person disability status.

“Remember when somebody comes to the ALJ they have already been turned down two times by someone who is very knowledgeable,” he said. “We need structural change in how we do this and we need continued oversight.”

In a memo to Democratic staff, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member on the committee, said the problem isn’t with the Social Security Administration but with sufficient funding to pay for its oversight responsibilities.

He said the commmittee’s investigation over the past decade shows the agency has improved oversight of ALJs. Specifically he says it has improved data collection and analysis about ALJ decisions, expanded training to improve performance, sharpened disciplinary procedures against judges who fail to comply with agency policies, and improved efforts to prevent improper payments and detect fraud.

“Unfortunately, inadequate funding from Congress hinders the full deployment of these quality improvement measures,” said Cummings.

Coburn agreed there needs to be more funding for antifraud efforts and to help those with disabilities become productive members of society.

“If you put someone with disability on disability, what you did was put a ceiling on them,” said Coburn. He said the system incentivizes people to depend on social security the rest of their lives instead of trying to become employed.