Lawmakers seek Probe of the Disability Process

Lawmakers who are part of the legislative subcommittee which oversees Social Security are asking for an investigation into the procedure by which disability payments are authorized. At the center of the controversy is an administrative law judge from Huntington, West Virginia named David B. Daugherty, who in fiscal year 2010 awarded benefits to a whopping 99.7% of the claimants on his case load.

By comparison, other judges average approximately 60%. Although news of Daugherty’s inordinately high award rate first surfaced publicly in a May 19th Wall Street Journal article, it seems that members of the Huntington office staff as well as other judges have been complaining about Daugherty’s disproportionate honor rate for years, to no avail. Upon publication of the article Daugherty was placed on indefinite leave and his immediate supervisor stepped down from his supervisory position. Both, however, have denied any wrongdoing.

In a bipartisan letter from members of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security to Social Security Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll, lawmakers expressed significant concern regarding the situation in Huntington as well as the possibility that similar problems could be occurring elsewhere in the country.

There are two types of disability programs administered by the SSA; the largest of these is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Last year, this program paid out approximately $4 billion to 10.2 million claimants. Based on current growth rates and budget projections, the program will become insolvent by 2018.

According to the letter sent to Mr. O’Carroll, the subcommittee is greatly concerned about how well the funds are being managed. Considering the fact that the SSA oversees in excess of three quarters of a million cases annually, the stakes are very high. Indeed, the agency must take steps to be sure funds are not readily available to those who would seek to obtain them fraudulently, yet can be accessed by those who are legitimately entitled to them. It is a delicate balance that requires diligent oversight. The subcommittee’s letter asks that a review process be initiated for those judges whose award and/or productivity rates differ significantly from those of their colleagues.

For his part, Mr. O’Carroll has acknowledged that a criminal investigation has been launched regarding the Huntington case. In particular, investigators have been looking specifically to see if there were any conflicts of interest or other potential improprieties in the relationships between the Huntington office and attorneys representing the claimants in the cases in question.

We have all heard the nightmare stories of those who won disability cases for seemingly insignificant “injuries”. Similarly, most of us are familiar with someone who, although they had some sort of legitimate disability, was denied access to the funds they were rightfully entitled to. The case in West Virginia serves to highlight the fact that greater oversight is needed within the Social Security system so that fraud can be reduced without causing those who have a desperate (and legitimate) need for these funds to be stuck in limbo as they await the resolution of a seemingly interminable appeal case.