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House probe: OK for disability claims up sharply

WASHINGTON -- Social Security is approving disability benefits at strikingly high rates for people whose claims were rejected by field offices or state agencies, according to House investigators. Compounding the situation, the agency often fails to do required follow-up reviews months or years later to make sure people are still disabled.

Claims for benefits have increased by 25 percent since 2007, pushing the fund that supports the disability program to the brink of insolvency, which could mean reduced benefits. Social Security officials say the primary driver of the increase is demographic, mainly a surge in baby boomers who are more prone to disability as they age but are not quite old enough to qualify for retirement benefits.

In addition, however, management problems "lead to misspending" and add to the financial ills of the program, investigators from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee say.

"Federal disability claims are often paid to individuals who are not legally entitled to receive them," three senior Republicans on the House committee declared in a March 11 letter to the agency.

Among the signers was the committee's chairman, Rep. Darrell Issa of California.

Social Security acknowledges a backlog of 1.3 million overdue follow-up reviews to make sure people still qualify for benefits. But agency officials blame budget cuts for the backlog, saying Congress has denied the funds needed to clear it.

Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle said the agency follows the strict legal definition of disability when awarding benefits.

Nearly 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children get Social Security disability benefits. That's up from 7.6 million a decade ago. The average monthly benefit for a disabled worker is $1,130.

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