Social Security Disability payouts have risen drastically since the start of the recession. Over the last six years, claims have increased by 25 percent, and 3.2 million Americans have applied for the either Social Security Disability or Supplemental Social Security Income in 2012 alone. Along with the dramatic increase in claims and payouts, budget cuts have also created a backlog of more than a million overdue follow-up reviews for current recipients.
Some House of Representatives officials believe the large number of approvals is due to hasty or even activist judicial decisions, which typically occur during the second appeal in the application process. To reduce the appeals backlog, administrative judges are required to decide 500 or more cases per year, which may ultimately cause them to award more benefits than they would if they had more time to consider each case.
Other officials said the increasing payouts may have more to do with the uncertain nature of the most common disability claims including bone pain, muscle pain and mental disorders. “Pain cases and mental cases are extremely difficult because–and even more so with mental cases—there’s no objective medical evidence,” said Randall Frye, a Social Security administrative law judge, in a CBS news interview.
Still, some Social Security experts said there is a more benign explanation for the increases in claims and payouts. “I think the whole situation is overblown, quite frankly, and that the claims are up for a lot of different reasons,” said Paul Pochepan, a Social Security and bankruptcy attorney in Buffalo, New York. “The economy has kept people working who probably shouldn’t have been working, and they become eligible given the SSA’s disability standards.”
Workers with physical jobs have had to postpone retirement, and many have lost the disability-related benefits and accommodations their employers used to provide. With few skills to transfer to white-collar, more disability-friendly workplaces, they’re often left with little choice but to apply, he said.
Foul play may not have anything to do with the lack of follow-up reviews, either. “The follow-ups have always been a very random thing in my opinion,” said Pochepan, who has spent more 20 years helping people apply for disability benefits. “Because there are so many more people on the rolls, the SSA just can’t really keep up with it.” It might be wise for the SSA to follow up more often with younger enrollees, but they constitute only a small minority of the total recipient population, he said.
While claims and payouts have certainly increased by a large margin, denial rates have also risen over the last several years, and it’s tougher than ever for truly disabled workers to get the money they need, some experts said. The primary requirement for the program is a medical condition that will make work impossible for 12 months or longer, and applicants must have medical documentation and proof of prior of treatment.