Disability insurance entitlement explodes under Obama

Robert Ehrlich says it's no coincidence that so many more Americans rely on SSDI under this administration

March 03, 2013|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

Those of you paying attention have noticed that the Obama administration is actually doing what it promised: transforming America into a gigantic welfare state. And there are plenty of takers willing to cash in on it and "get mine." Numbers don't lie. Forty percent of the population was on some form of public assistance when the president took office; today, that number stands at 55 percent. And fraud is rampant.

"Exhibit A" is the Social Security Disability Insurance program (SSDI), a classic Washington entitlement that chews up tax dollars while (often) negligently providing for unqualified beneficiaries, an increasing number of whom are wont to remain on the public dole for … well, forever if they don't get caught.

Make no mistake — rapid growth, lax standards and an increased cultural acceptance of long-term nanny state benefits has gotten SSDI into big fiscal trouble.

The 2012 Social Security trustees report shows that SSDI is on schedule to be exhausted as early as 2015, making it one of the first federal entitlement trust funds to go bust. Rapid expansion of the program has coincided with the tenure of the Obama administration. Coincidence? Nope! The facts speak for themselves:

•Since President Obama's 2009 inauguration, 5.9 million people have been added to SSDI, a 23 percent increase over the last five years (compare that to 2.5 million new jobs created during the same time period);

•SSDI rolls have swollen to almost 11 million recipients (translation: 1 in 14 U.S. workers);

•In 2011, only 3.6 percent of enrollees exited the program due to "medical improvement";

•Also in 2011, the program cost taxpayers $128.9 billion (18 percent of all Social Security spending) and generated a deficit of $25.3 billion.

As with all federal programs, SSDI was created as a social safety net to serve a legitimate purpose: to provide income assistance to vulnerable individuals unable to find work as a result of a disability. Most Americans support the sentiment, but compassion has its limits. We draw the line at those who game (defraud) the system in order to secure benefits.

How bad is the problem? Just ask any occupational therapist or nurse practitioner. They will regale you with myriad stories of minor ailments ("I need a handicap tag for my car — there are no close parking places at the golf course!") and demands for unfounded and outrageous disability ratings with excessive paid time off ("... or I'll find somebody else to certify me!").

Think this is a heartless, right-wing indictment? Think again. The liberal Center for American Progress has opined that "the program provides strong incentives to applicants and beneficiaries to remain permanently out of the labor force, and it provides no incentive to employers to implement cost-effective accommodations that enable employees with work limitations to remain on the job. … Too many work-capable individuals involuntarily exit the labor force and apply for, and often receive, SSDI."

The supporting numbers are disheartening at best: In 1983, 163 per 1,000 SSDI beneficiaries terminated benefits and left the program. Today, that number has plunged to 74 per 1,000. A Heritage Foundation analyst reports that the increase in SSDI rolls accounts for one-third of the drop in U.S. labor force participation from 2007 to 2011, its lowest level since 1981.

The most egregious result of all the fraudulent awards is that some applicants legitimately in need of assistance may wait as long as two years before their files are completed.

But hope may be on the way. A 2012 Senate subcommittee's probe into the program revealed what an informed outside observer might already have assumed: Federal hearing examiners are often poorly trained, render inconsistent decisions, fail to follow required medical criteria, and use outdated occupational data to identify job openings for clients with partial disabilities.

The same congressional report presents solutions, including the required attendance of the government's agency representative at evidentiary hearings, a stronger review process, an expanded (expert) consultative process, and an updated job and medical guideline vocational list.

SSDI has experienced excessive growth for a number of reasons. Large numbers of aging baby boomers certainly contribute to the expansion, and additional qualifiers translates into more applicants. But there is more to the problem than numbers. An anemic recovery has contributed as well — hard times can compel those predisposed to public benefits to turn to the disability rolls.

Fortunately, common-sense remedies do not constitute heavy lifting. They can and should be adopted by a political class (allegedly) in the business of protecting and securing Social Security for future generations. Hard-working taxpayers deserve no less.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is ehrlichcolumn@gmail.com.

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