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House Subcommittee to Investigate Disability Process

Source: WSJ - Damian Paletta

Posted on 17 Jun 2011

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Republicans and Democrats on the House subcommittee call for an investigation into Social Security and the way administrative-law judges determine whether someone qualifies for disability benefits.

"Over the years, the Social Security Administration has made great strides in tackling the hearings backlog, but it is essential that this progress adhere to the Agency's policies and procedures while also demonstrating good stewardship of precious taxpayer dollars," Reps. Sam Johnson (R., Texas), Xavier Becerra (D., Calif.) and seven of their colleagues wrote in a letter to Social Security Inspector General Patrick O'Carroll.

Messrs. Johnson and Becerra are the top lawmakers on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, and the bipartisan letter could add urgency to existing investigations already under way.

In the letter, the lawmakers referenced a May 19 Wall Street Journal story about the Social Security disability-appeals office in Huntington, W.Va. A judge there, David B. Daugherty, awarded benefits in all but four of the 1,284 cases he decided in fiscal 2010. The typical award rate from judges is close to 60%.

Other judges and staff members in the Huntington office had complained about Mr. Daugherty's high award rates for years, but little was done. After the article ran, Mr. Daugherty was placed on indefinite leave and his direct supervisor, Huntington chief judge Charlie Andrus, stepped down from his management post. Both have denied wrongdoing.

"The situation described in the article…raises serious concerns about the degree and effectiveness of SSA's management oversight," the letter from lawmakers wrote. They said they "are very concerned about the particulars of this story as well as any potentially similar occurrences that may be taking place elsewhere in the Nation."

Social Security operates two large disability programs. The largest, known as Social Security Disability Insurance, paid out $124 billion in benefits to 10.2 million people last year. It has grown so rapidly that is expected to exhaust its reserves by 2018.

In the letter, the lawmakers asked Mr. O'Carroll to review the workloads of judges, their adherence to government policies and instances when some judges "differ very significantly from their peers in the productivity or outcomes." The letter also asked the inspector general to investigate the effectiveness of the Social Security Administration's quality-review process and management controls.

Mr. O'Carroll met with the subcommittee on Tuesday and said his office had launched a criminal investigation into the situation in Huntington. People in

Huntington familiar with the criminal probe said the investigators were looking into whether there were any improper relationships between the Huntington office and local attorneys who represent clients in disability cases.

"Right now we're working very hard on it," Mr. O'Carroll told lawmakers about the investigation.