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Oklahoma Watch: Disability programs' enrollment continues to grow

Oklahoma Watch: In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, nearly 187,000 Oklahomans of working age received disability benefits — a 73 percent increase since 2000.
BY CHASE COOK. Oklahoma Watch, For The Oklahoman Published: May 6, 2013

The federal government defines disability as an inability to engage in work due to physical or mental impairments that are expected to result in death or last for a year or more. Work history, job opportunities and location also are factors.

For example, if someone with a history of physical labor hurts his back severely and lives in a rural area where most of the jobs involve manual labor, chances are good the person will qualify for disability, Schultz-Lackey said. If someone with a history of working at a desk hurts his back and similar desk jobs are available in the area, the person may not get disability, she said.

About 66 percent of disability claims filed with the Social Security Administration are denied. Applicants can appeal, and the case can end up before an administrative law judge.

In Oklahoma and nationally, at least six of 10 appeals are denied or dismissed.

Lawsuit's allegations

The rising number of claims has overburdened the judges overseeing disability cases, according to a lawsuit filed in April by the Association of Administrative Law Judges against the Social Security Administration.

The lawsuit alleges that the administration is pressuring judges to meet annual quotas and, as a result, judges don't have time to properly evaluate complicated cases.

With baby boomers getting older, growth in disability claims is likely to continue. People on disability typically remain on the program for life.

The purpose of the programs is to transition the disabled into retirement and provide aid for the severely disabled, Schultz-Lackey said. Critics say the program gives permanent disability to too many people who don't need it and promotes dependence on federal subsidies.

Schultz-Lackey defended the program.

“Things get overblown,” she said.

“I think we have something that works very well, and I'm very proud of it.”