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SSA New Year's resolution: Rein in SSDI benefits program

The Social Security Administration took a lot of heat in 2013. There were a lot of headlines about how the recent recession appears to have driven a big increase in the number of people seeking Social Security disability insurance benefits. The concern there is that the payouts will drain the trust fund reserves by 2016 and lead to benefits cuts for all beneficiaries.

Then there are the questions from some members of Congress about whether fraud hasn't gotten way out of hand. Some in the news media have noted, too, that there seems to be a broad lack of consistency among the administrative law judges who handle the appeals of those who have been denied benefits. Some almost always grant benefits, while others almost never do.

The SSA says it is undertaking a number of changes to address the issues it can. It says one of the initial goals is to get greater control over the outlier judges.

The agency recently announced that it is rewriting the judge job descriptions. A draft reviewed by The Wall Street Journal reveals that one of the key changes is the elimination of the phrase "complete individual independence." The document also makes clear that the judges will be subject to oversight from other agency officials.

Not surprisingly, the union representing many of the judges isn't happy with the change. It says the loss of independence means the process will become more politicized, shifting with whatever party happens to be in the White House. Some observers say such pressure already exists -- pointing to federal data that show that from 2010 to 2013, awards of benefits fell by more than 10 percent.

Regardless of changes that have been made or that are likely to come, it seems certain that the process of seeking and obtaining benefits is not going to get any easier. That's why working with an experienced attorney is always advised.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, "Government Pulls in Reins On Disability Judges," Damian Paletta, Dec. 26, 2013 

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