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Pipeline, disability program highlight Obama's management philosophy

by The Oklahoman Editorial Board Published: July 14, 2013

THE Obama administration has delayed Keystone XL pipeline approval for years. Watching this seemingly endless process, you might conclude the administration simply can't get things done. Would that this were true!

The administration has no similar hesitation in facilitating rapid approval of dubious Social Security disability payments, which was made clear at a recent hearing conducted by a U.S. House subcommittee chaired by Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City.

Payments from the Social Security Disability Insurance Program are meant for those who can no longer work. But the program has become a de facto unemployment program. Individuals whose disability claims are initially denied can appeal to an administrative law judge (ALJ). Even though an ALJ typically sees applicants who've been denied benefits, the majority of the judges approve more than half the cases they see. Nearly 200 of them have approval rates of 75 percent or more.

This high approval rate appears the result of emphasizing speed over accuracy. Glenn Sklar, deputy commissioner of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, proudly told lawmakers that the average wait for a hearing decision has dropped from more than 500 days in 2007 to 375 days in 2013. Technology use is credited for the improvement.

But Sklar also acknowledged the agency has set a “disposition goal” for administrative law judges. “Specifically, we informed the entire ALJ corps of our expectation that they should issue between 500 and 700 legally sufficient dispositions annually,” Sklar said.

Critics say the quota promotes fast decision-making over informed decision-making. U.S. Administrative Law Judge J.E. Sullivan bluntly called it “a factory-type ‘production' process.” Sullivan said ALJs are pressured to “engage in a superficial ‘guessing' process to decide disability cases.” He described one training session where ALJs were advised, “Don't be afraid” to stop reading the evidence in disability hearings. They were also advised they could largely ignore physical therapy notes, chiropractic notes, hospital records and Department of Veterans Affairs' records.

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by The Oklahoman Editorial Board
The Oklahoman Editorial Board consists of Gary Pierson, President and CEO of The Oklahoma Publishing Company; Christopher P. Reen, president and publisher of The Oklahoman; Kelly Dyer Fry, editor and vice president of news; Christy Gaylord...
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