Review to Target Social Security Disability Appeals

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is set to launch a review of the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, amid concerns that people who don’t deserve disability benefits may be receiving them, while the deserving are being denied. According to a report from The Wall Street Journal, the Social Security Disability review will be conducted by the Administrative Conference of the United States, which says it plans to release recommendations for overhauling the disability-appeals process next year.

The Social Security Disability Insurance Program was created in the 1950s. This year, the program is expected to pay out $103 billion in benefits to more than 10 million people deemed unable to work. However, according to the Journal, the Social Security Disability program faces financial uncertainty, and is expected to exhaust its reserves by 2017.

One main focus of the Conference’s study will be the role of the administrative judges who decide disability appeals. SSA administrative judges, who hear appeals by applicants who have been denied twice before at the state level, are appointed for life, and have wide berth to determine disability awards or deny claims. Critics of the appeals system complain that the way different judges decide appeals can be wildly inconsistent.

According to the Journal, some judges decide claims in minutes, while others take an hour or more. Its own investigation found more than 100 “outlier” judges who awarded benefits in more than 85% of appeals they heard. According to the Journal, SSA has worked hard in recent years to tackle a backlog of pending appeals. But some administrative judges complained that this focus on speed has only served to encourage judges who are willing to move cases quickly and with less scrutiny.

Next week, SSA plans to stop notifying people applying for benefits of which judge they’ve been assigned for their case, in an attempt to stop applicants and their attorneys from “shopping” for more lenient administrative judges for their appeals.

Another focus of the study will be why federal courts are overturning many of the decisions that Social Security judges make when they deny benefits, the Journal said. Last year, federal courts either found errors or overturned 51% of the denials they reviewed.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the Administrative Conference’s report is due in August, with the final recommendations slated to be released in November. None of the recommendations will be binding, but they could guide both the SSA and Congress as they consider changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance Program.

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