WASHINGTON — Rep. James Lankford continued Tuesday to pursue problems in the complex and expensive Social Security program for disabled workers, saying at a hearing that the system is barreling toward insolvency as more people collect benefits.
Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, who held a subcommittee hearing in June on the system, asked key Social Security Administration officials Tuesday to testify about how they are combating fraud and ensuring judges are properly scrutinizing applicants.
“There are truly disabled people ... that can be hurt on this if we don't find a way to be able to resolve this issue soon,” Lankford said.
The disability program is less than three years from being insolvent, and lawmakers and the agency should do everything possible to guard against improper payments, he said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said the program is a lifeline for the truly disabled and the Social Security Administration has been taking steps to ensure only qualified people are receiving benefits.
However, she said she was troubled by the backlog in reviews of cases.
“It is also troubling to learn that benefits are still being paid to some who have died or who have been incarcerated,” she said.
Speier said part of the fault lies with Congress for not giving the agency more money to do the necessary reviews.
A Social Security official testified Tuesday that an additional $1.2 billion in money to conduct disability reviews could ultimately save taxpayers $40 billion over the next decade.
The agency's inspector general, Patrick O'Carroll, said the Social Security Administration expects to pay out $190 billion this year to 18 million disabled workers and their families and receive about 3 million new disability claims.
“Determining who's eligible and who continues to be eligible is an overwhelming task,” he said.
In addition, the inspector general's office has launched pilot investigative projects aimed at finding collusion among third parties, such as doctors and lawyers, O'Carroll said.
Lankford is building on work done by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, and a Senate subcommittee on which he serves, along with The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets who have reported on problems in the system.
Among the questions raised is whether some judges who hear the appeals of workers whose applications were rejected are approving far too many.
Lankford showed the example of one judge who approved more than 95 percent of the appeals before him. That single judge had effectively awarded $4.5 billion in disability payments, given the average lifetime payment, Lankford said.
He suggested that some judges with high approval rates be suspended while their cases are examined.
Speier praised Lankford for not dropping the issue after one hearing and said they could work together toward solutions.
“You're sticking to it,” she told him. “I'm proud that you are.”