While the popular view of congressional activity focuses on heated debates or political speechmaking, the real work often involves far more mundane chores — committee meetings, letters to agency officials, one-on-one briefings. That work is often overlooked or dismissed as showboating. U.S. Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, is proving otherwise.
As chairman of the House Oversight Committee’s Subcommittee on Energy Policy, Health Care and Entitlements, Lankford has publicized apparent abuses in Social Security disability payments. Now the Obama administration is implementing new guidelines to reduce fraud.
Payments from the Social Security Disability Insurance Program (SSDI) are intended for those who can no longer work. Applicants whose disability claims are initially denied can appeal to administrative law judges (ALJs). At one Lankford-chaired hearing in 2013, it was noted a majority of ALJs approve more than half the cases they review, and nearly 200 had approval rates of 75 percent or more — even though the appealing applicants have already been twice deemed ineligible for disability benefits.
Those apparently lax standards have facilitated an enrollment surge that has imperiled the disability program; it is expected to deplete all reserves by 2016. In a recent letter to agency leaders, Lankford noted the apparent ease of gaining benefits “has led many individuals who are not disabled to apply for benefits.”
Now the Social Security Administration is rewriting ALJs’ job description to eliminate the “complete individual independence” previously allowed and make ALJs “subject to the supervision and management” of agency officials. In theory, this will increase oversight and reduce fraud.
Lankford’s congressional oversight efforts aren’t the only force bringing pressure on disability program administrators. The Wall Street Journal has published several articles noting the extremely high approval rates of some ALJs; fraud issues have since led to the arrest of more than 70 people in Puerto Rico and a separate criminal investigation into a West Virginia judge. (That case has also been a focus of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee.) Still, Lankford’s work undoubtedly played a role in forcing enhanced oversight.
This doesn’t mean further reform is not needed. Lankford notes the latest changes are just “a small step of many steps that have to be made.”
Reporting on the new regulations, the Journal said many judges “say they have faced constant pressure from senior officials to move cases in recent years,” a claim validated by testimony at Lankford’s congressional hearing. Glenn Sklar, deputy commissioner of the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, acknowledged the agency had set a goal for ALJs to issue between 500 and 700 dispositions. One critic testified the quota facilitated “a factory-type ‘production’ process.”
Lankford points out that dispositions have now been capped at 700; some judges previously issued up to 2,000 annually. Lankford also wants routine reviews conducted to remove people from the disability rolls once they physically recover.
Still, increased scrutiny appears to be bearing fruit in appeals hearings. Geri Kahn, an immigration and disability lawyer in California, told the Journal, “It’s getting harder, especially with younger claimants or people who have been incarcerated. Cases that I think I could have won a couple years ago, I’m not winning or I’m not taking.”
That’s a win for taxpayers. For the role he has played in achieving that outcome, Oklahomans owe Lankford thanks — and encouragement to keep it up.