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Social Security Disability: Reality vs. Myth

Posted by Peter Bohan | Mar 10, 2018

Justice Delayed is Justice Denied (reality)

In 2017, the Star Telegram in Fort Worth, Texas, reported that nearly 6,000 disability cases were waiting to be decided by a staff of only 10 Administrative Law Judges (ALJ).

Across the United States, the average wait for an ALJ decision is more than 2 years, and while people wait for their disability cases to be decided, 7,400 people died last year while waiting.

These are unacceptable statistics, and we know their cause. They are caused by a lack of adequate funding from Congress and chronic understaffing throughout the entire social security system.  

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is an ancient legal maxim which means that if a wrong is not corrected within a reasonable amount of time, then it is as though the wrong were not corrected at all. Delaying Social Security disability benefits for years to deserving persons, especially to the thousands of people that die each year while waiting for their benefits, is a denial of justice.

Rampant Fraud in the Social Security System (myth)

Rather than providing adequate funding, some politicians like to blame fraud as the reason for the inefficiency and understaffing throughout the Social Security system. While it is true that in any large government program, there will always be unscrupulous persons that conspire to abuse the system for their own personal greed, statistics show that there is little actual fraud in the Social Security Disability system, which does a pretty good job at preventing it.

However, politicians and the media like to sensationalize isolated cases of fraud, when these cases arise. For example, in 2013, the New York Times reported a $6 million fraud from Puerto Rico, perpetrated by Samuel Torres Crespo and 74 others (including 3 doctors), who orchestrated a slew of false disability applications, before investigators uncovered the plot. [Published in New York Times, August 21, 2013.]

In August 2012, the Office of the Inspector General reported that Robert J. Velasquez, a doctor from National City, California, defrauded Social Security of $1.5 million, by falsifying test results for claimants seeking disability benefits. [Office of the Inspector General, Social Security, August 2, 2012.] And, in October 2013, an Administrative Law Judge, a law firm, and several doctors from Huntington, West Virginia, were found to have conspired to defraud Social Security of $4.5 million by falsifying records and medical reports. [Published in USA Today, October 8, 2013.]

As egregious as these cases are, they are outliers. In most cases, there is little or no fraud, because it's not that easy to commit fraud. Approximately 60% of applicants for social security disability are flat-out denied benefits. All disability applications are scrutinized at the initial application, on appeal (“reconsideration”), and in a face-to-face hearing in front of the Administrative Law Judge. It's not easy to “fake” symptoms or falsify documents. Judges are very good at recognizing any attempt by applicants to do that. In fact, statistics show that people who do get disability benefits are truly sick or disabled, because they have 3 to 6 times higher death rates than persons who do not qualify for disability payments.

Social Security Claims are Sky-Rocketing (myth)

A popular political tactic is to claim that social security disability costs are sky-rocketing and to blame fraud for that. However, social security disability costs are not “sky-rocketing,” and fraud is not running rampant throughout the social security system.

Rising social security disability costs are not the result of “fraud” in the system. Rather than fraud, the growth of the social security disability program for the past 30 to 40 years is almost entirely (90%) due to demographics, such as population growth, aging of baby boomers, and women entering the work force and becoming eligible for social security disability benefits. [Ref: Social Security Bulletin, vol. 7, No. 4 (2013).] Adjusted for demographic factors, the share of workers on disability has gone from slightly below 4% in 2000, to only slightly above 4% in 2014. [New York Times, September 2015.]

As an example, Tom Coburn, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma and a long-time foe of social security, said on a 60 Minutes television program in 2013. “My investigation tells me, and my common sense tells me that we have a system that is being gamed pretty big right now.” He asserted that out of $200 billion paid yearly in disability payments to 14 million Americans, up to $32 billion dollars was paid on “bogus claims.”Self-serving politicians including Paul Ryan and Tom Coburn have mischaracterized the real issue by demonizing legitimate claimants as "entitlement seekers" and the "rampant fraud" in the system.

Instead, we have a critical need to strengthen the vital safety net of Social Security Disability and Medicare:  programs that provide the bare minimum in civilized societies to protect its most vulnerable citizens. 

About the Author

Peter Bohan

Attorney since 1996; dedicated to representing Social Security Disability claimants before the Social Security Administration.

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