Of the 1,560 judges who have decided at least 50 cases since October, 195 judges approved benefits in at least 75 percent of their cases, according to the data analyzed by congressional investigators.
“The Social Security Administration has failed to take steps to address the problem of rapid disability growth, probably because the agency has failed to recognize many of the problems,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), the subcommittee chairman.
None of the judges who testified spoke of being specifically ordered to award claims. Three said they had been pressured to decide cases without fully reviewing medical files.
The judges described a system in which there is little incentive to deny claims but lots of pressure to approve them. It requires more documentation to deny a claim than to approve one, said Sullivan, the former Social Security judge. Also, rejected claims can be appealed while approved claims are not.
“There’s a tremendous amount of pressure to push cases out the door as soon as possible,” Sullivan said in an interview after the hearing. “There’s a push to pay mentality.”
Butler, the current judge, told the subcommittee, “I think you need to look at the issue of paying down the backlog. It’s not media hype, it’s real and for six years it’s been going on.”
The union representing administrative law judges said judges are required to decide 500 to 700 cases a year in an effort to reduce the hearings backlog. The union said the requirement is an illegal quota that leads judges to sometimes award benefits they might otherwise deny just to keep up with the flow of cases, according to a federal lawsuit filed by the judges’ union in April.
The agency denies there is a case quota for judges and said the standard is a productivity goal.
If Congress does not act, the trust fund that supports Social Security disability will run out of money in 2016, according to projections by Social Security’s trustees. At that point, the system will collect only enough money in payroll taxes to pay 80 percent of benefits, triggering an automatic 20 percent cut in benefits.
Congress could redirect money from Social Security’s much bigger retirement program to shore up the disability program, as it did in 1994. But that would worsen the finances of the retirement program, which is facing its own long-term financial problems.
— Associated Press