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House panel accuses judges of rubber-stamping disability claims

| Tuesday, June 10, 2014, 9:30 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Amid complaints about lengthy waits for Social Security disability benefits, congressional investigators say nearly 200 administrative judges have been rubber-stamping claims, approving billions of dollars in lifetime payments from the cash-strapped program.

Four of the judges defended their work at a combative congressional hearing on Tuesday. They said they follow the law.

“I've seen their ailments, I've seen their pain, right in front of me,” Judge Gerald I. Krafsur of Kingsport, Tenn., told the House oversight committee.

Krafsur approved 99 percent of the cases he decided from 2005 to 2013, according to a new report by the Republican staff of the Oversight Committee.

Lifetime benefits average about $300,000, according to the report, so Krafsur's cases will lead to nearly $1.8 billion in benefits.

The hearing occurs 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 confronting its own long-term financial problems.

By the time disability cases reach an administrative law judge, the claims have been rejected at least once and often twice by workers in state offices.

Oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., was incredulous that so many judges would rule that initial rejections were so often wrong.

“Are the people below you always wrong?” Issa asked Judge Charles Bridges of Harrisburg, Dauphin County.

“I would say they are not legally trained,” replied Bridges, who approved 95 percent of the cases he decided.

When pressed further about his approval rate, Bridges said: “I don't pay attention to those figures. All I do is concentrate on each case, one at a time.”

Issa: “You don't notice that you're essentially saying ‘approved, approved, approved,' almost all the time?”

Bridges: “I don't want to be influenced by that.”

The committee's report found that 191 judges approved more than 85 percent of the cases they decided from 2005 to 2013. All told, those judges approved $153 billion in lifetime benefits, the report said.

“In essence, these judges rubber-stamped nearly every claimant before them for a lifetime of benefits at taxpayer expense,” the report said.

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.

Social Security employs a little more than 1,400 administrative law judges.

There are 937,600 cases pending before administrative law judges, according to agency statistics.

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