Last month marked the 81st anniversary of the Social Security Act, which established our current retirement payment system for senior citizens. Today Social Security serves as a major source of income for millions of retired Americans, but its solvency is threatened by the explosive growth of enrollment in a different Social Security program: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), a program established 21 years after the original Social Security Act to provide for the “totally and permanently disabled” members of our society.
SSDI is critical to a state like Arkansas, where nearly 300,000 of our state’s population rely on the program. Last year, Congress passed a temporary bailout that provided five additional years of funding to the program, but that failed to include substantive reform. Congress must act to make real reforms to SSDI to ensure the program supports those with lifelong, work-preventing disabilities while helping the temporarily disabled return to work and remaining viable for future generations of Americans with disabilities.
First, it’s important to understand how we arrived at this problem. Funded through payroll taxes on American workers, SSDI was established in 1956, and by 1980, it cost about $25 billion annually. However, in 1984, Congress made changes to Social Security Disability Insurance that made it easier to qualify for the program and more susceptible to fraud by placing more credence on the applicants reported pain, relaxing screening of mental illness, and placing the burden of proof on the Social Security Administration rather than the individual to determine the work-limiting nature of the disability.
Among other problems with this law, the reforms failed to include mechanisms to help those who are able to recover from their disabilities return to work and transition off the program. As a result, enrollment in Social Security Insurance grew exponentially and payments to beneficiaries now costs American taxpayers a staggering $140 billion annually.
Many Arkansans who receive Social Security Disability Insurance are truly permanently disabled and unable to work. We remain committed to protecting and assisting these individuals, but we must also help those that are able to overcome their disabilities or improve their medical condition return to work and live full and independent lives.
A January 2015 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service noted the employment rate among working-age individuals with work-limiting disabilities has fallen from 24.4 percent in 1981 to 14.4 percent in 2013. In July of this year, nearly 9 million working-age Americans received disability payments, compared to just over 5 million in 2001, and most of these beneficiaries are unlikely to ever return to work.
Reports of fraud, abuse, and overpayments also continue to plague Social Security Disability, further straining the program and costing taxpayers billions of dollars. Last year, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that the program incorrectly paid beneficiaries $11 billion over the past 9 years and the Office of Management and Budget designated SSDI as one of 16 “high-error” government programs for improper payments. Massive fraud conspiracies in Puerto Rico, New York, and West Virginia, also illustrate the need for reforms and additional oversight.
The growing enrollment in SSDI, the low return to work rates, susceptibility to fraud, and the continued strain that SSDI puts on the Social Security Trust Fund compelled us to act and introduce the SSDI Return to Work Act. This bill brings much needed reforms to the program, creating a timeline for those with expected improvements to their disabilities and encouraging work for those who are able and willing to return to the workforce. With these reforms, SSDI can serve as a temporary reprieve for those with work-prohibitive disabilities, allow beneficiaries to earn more income, and facilitate a return to the workforce for millions of disabled Americans.
Our bill also reinvests some of the savings of these reforms into continuing disability reviews (CDRs). CDRs are used to reassess the disabilities of SSDI beneficiaries and also roots out fraud and abuse of the program. The Social Security Administration estimates that every dollar spent on CDRs reduces future benefits by approximately $10, ultimately saving billions of taxpayer dollars. Currently, a massive backlog at the Social Security Administration has made it difficult to review each disability case carefully. Allocating additional funds to CDRs will help resolve this backlog and benefit the oversight and management of disability enrollment.
While some believe the solution to the problem is throwing more money into SSDI, this would be an ineffective strategy, allowing the program to grow in cost and leave us in the same dangerous financial situation in just a few short years. We cannot continue to kick the can down the road for our children to deal with—we must confront the issue now and implement productive and innovative solutions to modernizing SSDI.
Every day that we do not act to preserve the future of Social Security our options to address the pressing issues facing the program shrink. A Gallup poll last summer found that over half of non-retired Americans believe the system will pay them a benefit by the time they retire. It is time that we restore trust in this valuable benefit for our Nation’s retirees, and we can start with relieving the strain that SSDI places on the retirement benefits of our hardworking seniors that have spent their lifetimes paying into this program.
Republican Tom Cotton represents Arkansas in the United States Senate.