Judges cite pressure to approve disability payments as program nears insolvency

Judges testified Thursday that they were pressured to approve Social Security disability payments, amid warnings that the explosion in the number of Americans receiving those payments means the program may become insolvent by 2016. 

According to testimony before a House panel on Thursday, recipients may be looking at checks that are 20 percent smaller by then unless changes are made. 

Several officials tried to explain the scope and origin of the costly surge that is leading yet another federal benefit program to insolvency. 

While many attribute the growth in cases to the poor economy and lack of jobs, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., said other factors are at play, and that a whopping 1 in 17 Americans now collects the government payments. 

He said a recent study of 300 randomly selected cases showed a flawed application process plays a big role in the uptick. He said a Senate committee examined the cases from around the country and found 25 percent of them were decided inappropriately. 

The application process, though lengthy and laborious, is rife with the potential for exploitation. Even if local Social Security Administration workers have twice rejected a disability application, the claimant still has the option of taking his or her case to an administrative law judge. 

A panel of those judges described for the committee the tremendous pressure that Social Security Administration managers put on them to approve payments, and to do it quickly. The judges are required to process a minimum of 500-700 disability cases per year. 

One judge, J.E. Sullivan, described how she was told by the Social Security Administration to limit her scrutiny of individual cases. 

"Were you told to put 50 exhibit pages on a single screen to quicken your review?" she was asked. 

"Yes," she said.  

Sullivan was also asked: "Were you told that the only thing that mattered was whether you produced and met agency goals?" 

She replied, "Repeatedly." 

Under the present system, administrative law judges are presented with facts only from the claimants' side -- no one represents the government or the taxpayer. 

Judge Thomas Snook told the committee that he has few options to sanction manipulative claimants and the lawyers who represent them. "I can impose no sanction when they withdraw the day of the hearing. I can impose no sanction when they show up at the hearing with hundreds of pages of new evidence, even if the hearing has to be postponed because the medical expert does not have time to read the new evidence,"  he said. 

Coburn testified that the average disability case before an administrative law judge has 600 pages in it, leading  the senator to describe their job  as "impossible."

Doug McKelway joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in November 2010 and serves as a Washington-based correspondent. Click here for more information on Doug McKelway