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SSA launches review of SSD appeals process

After a series of articles indicating that the Social Security Disability appeals process was significantly less than consistent, the Social Security Administration has reportedly commissioned an independent review of the system. The focus of the review will be to determine whether SSD administrative law judges award disability benefits to applicants who do not deserve them, and deny the applications of people who legitimately qualify for benefits.

There are approximately 1,500 judges who handle Social Security Disability appeals in California and throughout the country. The judges, who are appointed for life, hear appeals by applicants who have been denied twice before at the state level. They generally operate independently and with little oversight. As a result, their approval rates vary significantly, and SSA officials and federal lawmakers want to know why.

The average approval rate by a SSD administrative law judge is roughly 60 percent. However, there are wide variations in both directions. One Texas judge awarded benefits in just 13 percent of his cases last year, while another in Tennessee approved 99 percent of appeals that were heard in his court.

While we certainly believe that people who qualify for Social Security Disability benefits should receive them, the judges who are on the high end of the approval rate may be placing SSD on shaky financial ground. In a recent congressional hearing, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said that the 100 SSD judges who award benefits to more than 85 percent of applicants cost the SSA an additional $1 billion every year. With SSD projected to exhaust its reserves by 2017, it is clear that some changes need to be made in order to maintain the program's viability.

The review is expected to be completed by August, with recommendations due in November.

Source: Wall Street Journal, "Disability-Benefits System Faces Review," Damian Paletta, Dec. 15, 2011

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