The Academy Awards are presented to the best acting performances of the year. A very select group has claimed this award. But millions of people receive acting awards each day pretending that they are disabled and can no longer work.
These people don't get a little statuette, but they can earn $1,111 per month and $300,000 over the course of a lifetime from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). In addition, after a 24-month waiting period, SSDI beneficiaries qualify for Medicare benefits.
The Heritage Foundation's Foundry newsletter reported that the Social Security Administration (SSA) distributed $175 billion in disability benefits to about 15 million recipients in 2011. The report noted that about 15 percent, or $21 billion, of those benefits are improperly awarded each year to persons who are not disabled, placing a significant financial strain on a program whose coffers are projected to be depleted in three years.
"An 18-month investigation released last year by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., found that more than a quarter of recipients in 300 randomly selected cases were awarded disability benefits by the SSA despite questionable evidence."
I recently talked with MacMillin Slobodien, executive director of Our Generation, on my Made in America radio show, who told me that "despite its humble beginnings as an insurance plan for long-tenured workers with the misfortune of becoming disabled before retirement, SSDI has ballooned into a $135 billion behemoth threatening to collapse under its own weight, and to take a bite out of Medicare on the way down."
He added, "Left unchecked, decades of loose standards and poor enforcement may soon culminate in thousands — if not millions — of deserving recipients being deprived their rightful benefits."
The 2012 Social Security trustees' report projected that the disability trust fund will be exhausted in 2016 — two years sooner than last year's report and sooner than any other federal entitlement trust fund.
An 18-month investigation by a Senate subcommittee found that in more than 25 percent of cases reviewed, evidence confirming disabilities was "insufficient, contradictory or incomplete." The staff reviewed 300 decisions in which individuals were awarded disability benefits by administrative law judges.
A 2011 internal SSA report echoed the findings, showing a national error rate of 22 percent.
According to Slobodien, in 1970, the SSDI program could be financed with a payroll tax rate of only 0.8 percent of wages; today, the cost of SSDI has tripled relative to the 1970 level. Disability benefits now make up 18 percent of all Social Security costs, up from only 10 percent in 1990. In fact, the number of people on SSDI in 2012 exceeded the entire population of New York City, at 8,733,461 participants.
Recent research has shown that the rising cost of SSDI is not principally the result of an increase in disabling illnesses, but policies that make qualifying for benefits easier. These policies open benefits to the more marginally disabled, raising costs for taxpayers.
In addition to the loosening of eligibility requirements, the principal drivers of SSDI growth are increasingly attractive benefits and an applications process that has become incapable of distinguishing between truly disabled workers and those who should be rejected. As Slobodien's Drivers of SSDI Growth report demonstrates, these three effects have combined to create a modern SSDI very different from the one envisioned by its architects.
Going forward, it is essential that Congress take significant steps to rein in SSDI's growth. To do nothing — to continue to prioritize the able bodied over the truly infirm — is far worse.
Some recommendations have been put forth that can address the rising issue of SSDI fraud:
• Tighten eligibility requirements and conduct Continuing Disability Reviews of existing beneficiaries to reassess their disability status;
• Include greater oversight power for the SSA by administrative law judges who make SSDI decisions;
• Add "experience rating" for disability payroll taxes so employers who can keep individuals with disabilities on the job will be rewarded with lower taxes, while those who shift workers onto SSDI will pay more; and
• Require employers to carry private disability insurance to cover benefits for a short period until SSDI takes over.
Workers with legitimate disabilities who qualify for SSDI should by all means receive benefits. They earned them and they are entitled.
But the danger is that fraudulent claims will wipe out SSDI so that future deserving disabled workers will have no safety net. That would be a crime.
Noting that prior to the SSDI program going broke, Forbes magazine stated, "Congress will have to address SSDI's shortfall, which would reduce benefits by 20 percent. When the SSDI fund fell short in the past, Congress reallocated payroll tax dollars from the Old Age and Survivors program to DI. But now, many Republicans are likely to oppose such a step without major program reforms. This is an opportunity to take a serious look at the program — not just to save money but to better address the needs of working people with disabilities."
We can address the expansion of SSDI fraud by creating an economy that produces jobs. This would go a long way to help solve the issue by putting Americans back to work, and reversing the reliance on SSDI, a sad testament to what far too many consider their ultimate career destination.
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