The Social Security system is choking on paperwork and spending millions of dollars a year screening dubious applications for disability benefits, according to lawsuits filed by whistle-blowers.
Insurance companies are the source of the problem, the lawsuits say. The insurers are forcing many people who file disability claims with them to also apply to Social Security — even people who clearly do not qualify for the government program.
The Social Security Administration defines “disabled” much more stringently than the insurers generally do, so it rejects most of the applications, at least initially. Often, the insurers then tell their claimants to appeal, the lawsuits say, raising the cost.
The insurers say that requiring a Social Security assessment is a standard practice and that there is nothing wrong with it. The policies they sell allow them to coordinate their benefit payments with others to make sure no one is paid twice. Thus, if a disabled person can get benefits from somewhere else — like workers’ compensation, a disability pension or Social Security — the insurance company can reduce the benefit check by that amount.
The flood of referrals, however, is making it hard for Social Security to respond to people who are truly disabled, said Kenneth D. Nibali, the former top administrator of the Social Security disability program. “Anybody who is forced to come into this system, and who doesn’t need to be there, is affecting someone else,” said Nibali, who retired in 2002 and is serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. “They’re holding up cases for the people who have been waiting for months and years, who in many cases are much worse off.”
Already, the disability program is in much worse shape financially than the old-age portion of Social Security. It is projected to run out of money in 2026, 16 years ahead of the old-age trust fund.
The disability caseload is also expected to grow as the work force ages, since recovery time increases with age. The number of people waiting for hearings on their claims by an administrative law judge has more than doubled since 2000, and the average wait has grown to 512 days in that time, from 258 days.
The Social Security Administration is not an active participant in the lawsuits and declined to comment on them. A spokesman, Mark Lassiter, said Social Security does not keep track of how many of its roughly 2.5 million annual applicants for disability are referred by insurance companies. But he cited academic research showing that 18 percent acknowledged privately that they were unqualified, because they could still work.
“It is probable that many of these claimants were required to apply,” Lassiter said.
Jessica Ortiz, a 27-year-old gas station attendant in San Diego, said that was what happened to her. Her disability insurer, the Unum Group, called more than 10 times after she was hurt in a car crash, insisting that she apply for Social Security and asking repeatedly where her application stood. Unum was paying her only $50 a month under her policy, she said, which seemed a small amount to merit so much attention.