While record numbers of Americans are migrating to the disability rolls, new data show that more than a quarter of the cases observed between 2006 and 2010 were improperly awarded. In an 18-month investigation launched by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, auditors found that about 25 percent of the 300 sampled disability cases were granted benefits “without properly addressing insufficient, contradictory and incomplete evidence.”
Commissioned by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the 136-page Senate report concluded that the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security income programs are “teetering on financial bankruptcy.” According to estimates, the average lifetime disability award calculates to about $300,000, meaning inept decisions over whether a potential recipient should receive disability benefits could translate into an enormous taxpayer expense.
The report focuses primarily on ambiguous benefit rulings delivered by administrative law judges, including an Oklahoma judge who doled out more than $1.6 million in lifetime disability benefits in just a three-year period. Judge Howard O’Bryan of Oklahoma City awarded benefits for about 90 percent of over 5,400 cases from 2007 to 2009, the majority of which were held “on-the-record” without hearings, the report noted.
Instead of documenting a written analysis, some judges “cut and paste” images of medical records to present favorable award decisions. O’Bryan was one judge who was told numerous times to end this practice. Among other findings in the report:
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Photo: Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) during the the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on the Social Security Administration's disability program