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Sen. Tom Coburn to Discuss Latest Investigation on Disability Claims on 60 Minutes

by Chris Casteel Published: October 6, 2013

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, who has for the last three years been investigating the rapid rise in Social Security disability claims, will discuss the latest report on Sunday on CBS’ “60 Minutes.”
According to the network, Coburn will talk about the new report to be released Monday by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigation. A hearing is scheduled for Monday afternoon on the report by the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Here is a story from The Oklahoman’s story on the previous report, which included a long section on how the disability appeals system works in Oklahoma City:

U.S. SENATE COMMITTEE INVESTIGATION INITIATED BY COBURN LOOKED AT SOCIAL SECURITY BENEFIT CASES
Disability appeals report finds OKC judge lenient with process

By Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Friday, September 14, 2012
Edition: CITY, Section: NEWS METRO/STATE, Page 9A
Dateline: WASHINGTON
WASHINGTON — In a recent three-year period, an administrative law judge in Oklahoma City heard 5,401 appeals from people who had been denied Social Security disability benefits. The judge, Howard O’Bryan, approved nearly all of those people for benefits.

According to a Senate report released Thursday, O’Bryan’s opinions often failed to include a person’s specific disability. Rather, he would list a few ailments, sometimes followed by “etc., etc., etc.”

And sometimes he would copy medical reports into his opinions that contradicted his own decision to grant benefits. In the case of a woman who complained of hip pain and depression, O’Bryan granted her full benefits but included a doctor’s opinion that she was “very manipulative and an unreliable historian.”

O’Bryan’s record from 2006 to 2009 came to light as part of an 18-month inquiry by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations into the appeals process used for Social Security disability insurance claims.

Initiated by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, but conducted on a bipartisan basis, the investigation focused on cases from three counties, one each in Oklahoma, Virginia and Alabama.

The subcommittee looked at 300 cases in which Social Security disability or supplemental benefits were granted on appeal. It found that in at least one-quarter of them, the administrative law judges didn’t follow the processes required of them and relied on insufficient, contradictory or incomplete evidence.

At a hearing Thursday, Coburn said, “Unfortunately, some of the worst problems we see are in my home state.”

O’Bryan told investigators that he was “very, very careful” about what he put in his decisions. He said he had become so fast at producing decisions that the agency sent him ones from other states. He said he only handled cases that he thought should result in benefits being granted and sent the rest back to their home states for hearings.

O’Bryan was reprimanded several times by the agency, verbally counseled and sent a directive two years ago warning that disciplinary action could be taken if he didn’t adhere to policy.

Douglas S. Stults, the chief administrative law judge in Oklahoma City who sent the directive to O’Bryan, testified Thursday that O’Bryan had disposed of 519 cases this year and allowed benefits in 54 percent of them. Stults said he had made a concerted effort to get him “back into the middle.”

Rolls grow while funds shrink

The problems aren’t limited to Oklahoma. The investigation actually just confirmed internal reviews by the Social Security Administration showing errors nationwide in about 22 percent of the appeals, which come only after applicants have been turned down twice by the agency’s professional staff. The errors included cases in which people were denied benefits when they should have been granted them.

The investigation comes at a time when the Social Security disability rolls are growing rapidly — in part because people who lost jobs are seeking disability payments — and the funds are shrinking. At the end of June, about 10.8 million disabled workers and family members received disability insurance benefits. In 2006, 8.6 million received these benefits. Last year, the program cost $123 billion, and Social Security trustees have warned the program may not be able to meet its obligations as early as 2016 without congressional action.

Once the program runs low on funds, Coburn said, people who deserve the benefits will be hurt by those receiving the money who aren’t disabled.

Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the subcommittee, lauded the report but did not sign on because he disagreed with the recommendation that there be a government representative at all appeals hearings. Levin said the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that the agency should not be an advocate or adversary.

by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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