Washington • Four Social Security judges defended their work Tuesday amid accusations they rubber-stamped claims for disability benefits, approving billions of dollars in payments from the cash-strapped program.
Each of the judges approved more than 90 percent of the cases they heard from 2005 to 2013, according to a new report by the Republican staff of the House Oversight Committee. The report says the high approval rates indicate the judges didn't follow proper procedures or conduct meaningful hearings.
"In essence, these judges rubber stamped nearly every claimant before them for a lifetime of benefits at taxpayer expense," the report said.
The administrative law judges were scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Oversight Committee.
In written testimony, Judge Gerald I. Krafsur of Kingsport, Tenn., said he had heard thousands of cases and never had one overturned because the applicant was not disabled.
Judge Harry C. Taylor of Charleston, W.Va., said he makes it a point to keep an open mind about each case while conducting a balanced, thorough review.
From 2005 to 2013, Krafsur approved 99 percent of the cases he decided, the report said. Lifetime benefits average about $300,000, according to the report, so Krafsur's cases will lead to nearly $1.8 billion in benefits.
During the same time period, Taylor approved 94 percent of the cases he decided, for nearly $2.5 billion in total benefits, the report said.
Also scheduled to testify were Judge Charles Bridges of Harrisburg, Pa., and Judge James A. Burke of Albuquerque, N. M.
"I am concerned about Americans who work hard and earn disability coverage," Burke said in written testimony. "When they become disabled, they wait three years to get the coverage they earned. Lives and families are destroyed. I see their medical records and hear their testimony. I am trained to make legal and factual decisions. I am confident that I make the right decisions."
From 2005 to 2013, Burke approved 96 percent of the cases he decided, according to the report. Bridges approved 95 percent.
The report said some judges approved claims at alarmingly high rates as part of an agency effort to reduce case backlogs and processing times. It is often easier for a judge to approve a claim than to deny it, the report said. Denials can be appealed, so judges must meticulously document their reasons, the report said. Approvals are generally accepted, ending the judge's role in the case.
In 2007, the average processing time for a hearing was 512 days. It was reduced to less than a year in 2012, but has since crept back up to 411 days.
In written testimony for a second hearing on Wednesday, Acting Social Security Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin blamed budget cuts for the recent increase.
A report by the committee's Democratic staff said the judges at Tuesday's hearing grant benefits at a rate much higher than the vast majority of administrative law judges. The Democratic report says oversight and training for the agency's 1,400 judges has improved over the past decade.
Both reports note that, overall, judges are approving claims at the lowest rate in years. In 2013, judges approved 56 percent of the cases they decided, down from 72 percent in 2005.
Tuesday's hearing comes as Social Security's disability program edges toward the brink of insolvency. The trust fund that supports the disability program is projected to run out of money in 2016. 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.
Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That's a 45 percent increase from a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,146.
An additional 8.4 million people get Supplemental Security Income, a separately funded disability program for low-income people.
In order to qualify, people are supposed to have disabilities that prevent them from working and are expected to last at least a year or result in death.
Social Security disability claims are first processed through a network of local Social Security Administration field offices and state agencies called Disability Determination Services. About two-thirds of initial claims are rejected, according to agency statistics.
If your claim is rejected, you can ask the field office or state agency to reconsider. If your claim is rejected again, you can appeal to an administrative law judge, who is employed by Social Security.
The Republican report notes that most cases have been rejected twice by the time they reach an administrative law judge, raising questions about high approval rates.