San Antonio, Dallas top 'lottery-like' systems for Social Security benefits

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In San Anto­nio, Texas, peo­ple hop­ing to get Social Secu­rity dis­abil­ity pay­ments could see their cases assigned to any of 17 judges. The luck of this draw mat­ters a lot. One of the judges grants ben­e­fits in just 14 per­cent of cases. Another judge hands over benefits—which range from about $700 per month to about twice that—92 per­cent of the time.

That 78 per­cent dis­par­ity rate makes San Anto­nio the sec­ond most lottery-like sys­tem in the Social Secu­rity Administration’s arch­i­pel­ago of hear­ing offices, accord­ing to a data analy­sis by the Trans­ac­tional Records Access Clear­ing­house, a non-profit research orga­ni­za­tion housed at Syra­cuse Uni­ver­sity. (Dal­las is num­ber one, with 83 per­cent disparity).

“To a sur­pris­ing extent the records on dis­abil­ity deci­sions show again and again that even within the indi­vid­ual offices there is not a clear con­sen­sus among the judges about which claims should be awarded ver­sus which should be denied,” the authors of the report , David Burn­ham and Sue Long, write. “The prob­lem today is some­what worse than it was four and a half years ago.”

The report exam­ines the more than 1.1 mil­lion deci­sions by 1,422 admin­is­tra­tive law judges who had each decided 100 or more dis­abil­ity appeals dur­ing the last 18 months. The judges decide appeals of peo­ple rejected for Sup­ple­men­tal Secu­rity Income (SSI), a pro­gram for poor peo­ple with lit­tle or no work his­tory, and Social Secu­rity Dis­abil­ity Insur­ance (SSDI), a dif­fer­ent pro­gram that pays peo­ple who have worked and paid into the sys­tem. Both pro­grams use the same cri­te­ria to deter­mine whether a per­son is suf­fi­ciently dis­abled to qual­ify for ben­e­fits. TRAC assumes that, in any given hear­ing office, any batch of at least 100 cases will have an equiv­a­lent num­ber of legit­i­mate appeals.

For three decades SSI and SSDI out­lays have been grow­ing as more and more peo­ple claim dis­abil­i­ties pre­vent them from doing remu­ner­a­tive work. The dis­abil­ity sys­tem has spawned a bur­geon­ing legal sub­spe­cialty ded­i­cated to get­ting peo­ple their ben­e­fits, but recip­i­ents still often remain impoverished.

The cur­rent TRAC study is the sec­ond of two parts; part one exam­ined the size of the queue wait­ing for ben­e­fits, draw­ing a scathing denun­ci­a­tion from Social Secu­rity Com­mis­sioner Michael J. Astrue.

(In a press release, the Social Secu­rity Admin­is­tra­tion calls Part Two of TRAC’s report “more unsup­port­able grand­stand­ing mas­querad­ing as aca­d­e­mic research.”)

Crit­ics of the dis­abil­ity ben­e­fits sys­tem attack from both sides. Advo­cates for the ben­e­fi­cia­ries decry the long waits and seem­ingly ran­dom deci­sions, while fis­cal con­ser­v­a­tives see a large, little-examined give­away pro­gram for peo­ple who game the sys­tem. The Social Secu­rity Admin­is­tra­tion appears whip-sawed between these critics.

In Bal­ti­more, one judge, Charles Stark, granted ben­e­fits in 94 per­cent of cases, while the tough­est judge, William Under­wood, granted ben­e­fits in only 48 per­cent of cases. The 45 per­cent dis­par­ity rate ranked Bal­ti­more 62nd out of 155 offices.

Judge Stark ranked 37th among those show­ing high grant rates. San Antonio’s Judge William Her­bert, at just under 92 per­cent, was 62nd. Detroit’s most gen­er­ous admin­is­tra­tive law judge, Mary Con­nolly, granted ben­e­fits in 84 per­cent of cases, mak­ing her 212th among judges and very much on par with the most gen­er­ous judge at Baltimore’s National Hear­ings Cen­ter, in Reis­ter­stown, Vivian Mit­tle­man, who granted ben­e­fits 83.6 per­cent of the time. The national office showed a dis­par­ity rate of 33.4 per­cent, rank­ing it num­ber 111 in the survey—in the bot­tom third of the dis­par­ity ratios recorded.

Sue Long, the sta­tis­ti­cian and pro­fes­sor at Syra­cuse University’s Whit­man School of Man­age­ment who ana­lyzed the data, says an admin­is­tra­tive law judge who requested anonymity told her that the push for pro­duc­tion has led to higher grant rates. “I was told that to grant dis­abil­ity takes less time than to deny it,” Long says. “They have these report drafters, they are given eight hours to draft [a denial] and four hours to draft” [an approval]. — Edward Ericson Jr.

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