Change a necessity for disability program

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A good percentage of our population reacts angrily to any proposed change in Social Security, despite the clear fact that the system cannot sustain itself for another generation without change.


We live in a different nation than the one that existed in 1935, when the Social Security Administration was born. We should be debating which changes are necessary, not if change is needed at all.


One part of Social Security in dire need of change is disability insurance. There are now nearly 20 million Americans receiving monthly disability or Supplemental Security Income payments. The number of recipients has been doubling every 15 years. Claims for benefits have increased by 25 percent since 2007, according to an article by the Associated Press in Tuesday’s newspaper, pushing the fund that supports the disability program to the brink of insolvency. Last year, 3.2 million people applied for Social Security Disability or Supplemental Security Income.


So many people have applied for disability benefits that 816,000 are awaiting hearings, and Social Security acknowledges a backlog of 1.3 million overdue follow-up reviews to make sure people still qualify for benefits.


Why the surge in the number of applicants? The AP article didn’t go into that, but there are a couple of reasons.


The increase in applications started in 1984, when Congress revised the definition of disability, broadening it to include such afflictions as depression and back pain. Under the broader definition, more people applied, and many were denied benefits. Lawyers swept in to appeal the denials, many of which have been reversed because of a hearing process that doesn’t make much sense. The appeals judges are Social Security employees charged with hearing the cases objectively. But unlike civil suits, only the applicant who has been denied benefits and his attorney are present; there’s no one on the other side to argue why benefits should be denied.


Meanwhile, Congress has denied funds needed to pay for follow-up reviews, so many people who are no longer disabled continue to receive benefits.


But much of the huge increase in the number of applicants since 2007 is a result of actions by the states, some of which have worked vigorously to move people off welfare rolls and onto disability. Welfare is generally a state-funded program, whereas disability is federal. National Public Radio reported in March that some states have set up call centers to track down welfare recipients who have medical conditions that might qualify for disability insurance, and then have shepherded those people through the application process.


The result is that disability payments are going to many people whose conditions do not really prevent them from working, while at the same time people who are truly disabled and unable to work are mired in the backlog, sometimes for years.


Congress created this mess, and it must be Congress that fixes it. The House oversight subcommittee on entitlements began hearings on the disability program last week. The hearings will focus on the role of administrative law judges in awarding benefits.


We hope not just our lawmakers recognize the need for change in the system, but all of their constituents, as well.


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