WASHINGTON — Sen. Tom Coburn wants a meeting with the top Social Security Administration investigator to discuss the increase in people receiving disability payments, saying he's concerned that some may be using the program as “an extension of unemployment benefits.”
The number of people collecting Social Security disability insurance payments has risen steadily in recent years. According to agency statistics, disabled workers accounted for 17 percent of all Social Security recipients in Oklahoma in 2009, up from 13 percent in 2003.
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the disability insurance trust fund paying the benefits will be exhausted in seven years.
Coburn, R-Muskogee, said in an interview the fund may go broke before that because “growth in this program has been horrendous.”
While the Social Security Administration's focus has primarily been on clearing backlogs of appeals that stretch more than a year for people first denied benefits, the agency should be working just as hard to ensure that able-bodied people aren't collecting the payments, Coburn said.
Coburn said he has some personal experience: A man he hired in Muskogee to do some yard work told him that he was collecting Social Security disability payments. Coburn said Social Security workers from around the country have contacted him to tell of abuses in the program.
The Social Security Administration is supposed to do regular reviews to ensure those collecting the payments still deserve them. But the agency's inspector general estimated that the backlog of Continuing Disability Reviews would reach 1.5 million this year and that more than $1 billion may be paid out to people who don't deserve the benefits.
Coburn and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sent a letter to the inspector general of the Social Security Administration saying they were concerned that some judges were approving appeals at unrealistic rates.
“Given the looming collapse of (the Social Security Disability Income program), it is imperative that disability claims are properly examined to ensure that only those who are lawfully entitled to benefits receive them,” the senators wrote.
“Individuals cannot be allowed to exploit SSDI, transforming it into a supplemental source of unemployment income with enormous and crippling costs to taxpayers.”
The senators' request followed a story in The Wall Street Journal about a judge in West Virginia who approves nearly every one of the appeals he hears from people who were first denied disability benefits.
The Congressional Budget Office said disability insurance applications rose during the previous two recessions.
“Moreover, the number of beneficiaries tends to increase even after the economy begins to recover from downturns,” the nonpartisan agency said in a report. “Many people who have been out of the labor force for extended periods find it difficult to return to work, and new beneficiaries rarely leave the DI program to return to work simply because the economy has improved.
“CBO projects that as a result of the most recent recession, the number of DI beneficiaries will continue to rise over the next few years by more than otherwise would have occurred, contributing to the long-term trend of rising enrollment already under way.”