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Editorial: Disability claims swelling in recession


Certain things can cause someone to become disabled — a chronic illness, for example, or an accident. One thing that should not cause people to be categorized as disabled is a recession.

But that appears to be happening with Social Security Disability Insurance, the 1950s-era expansion of the program best known for paying retirement benefits. In 2007, 8.9 million people were on disability. Now that number is 10.7 million, a 20% jump in just five years.

While non-economic factors account for part of the increase — including a previous backlog of applicants and an aging population — the linkage between the rising disability rolls and the Great Recession is impossible to ignore.

So, too, is the boom in law firms specializing in getting people disability benefits. The system is so inefficient that applicants commonly have to wait two years for a decision, prompting them to hire lawyers. Those lawyers typically are paid a percentage of the backpay successful applicants get to cover the time between their claim and the decision. This gives the lawyers a potent incentive to drag the process out, to the detriment of everyone but themselves.

Social Security disability was meant to help those desperately in need, and presumably swiftly. It was never meant to be a continuation of unemployment benefits.

So what to do? One approach might be to tighten the rules for qualifying. The current definition of disabilityappears to be fairly tough: Applicants must show that their condition renders them unable to work, makes them unable to adjust to other work, and is expected to last at least a year or be terminal.

But the data suggest that this definition has considerable wiggle room. A White House study found a progression of people who had lost jobs, received unemployment benefits for as long as they could, and then qualified for disability.

Another approach would be to reshape the application review process. The current system delegates the initial screening to state agencies, with an appeal process handled by administrative law judges.

The appeals phase appears to be particularly problematic. In recent years, judges have beenoverturning the initial rejection at rates of about 60%. Their decisions vary wildly from region to region and judge to judge. A few judges approve virtually all the cases they hear — making them equivalent of “easy A” professors.

Beyond these get-tough approaches, some outside experts favor financial incentives for companies to retain minimally disabled people on their payrolls. Another reasonable idea is to create a category of disability that must be renewed after a few years to cover people with conditions that might improve.

Whatever the plan, something must be done about swelling disability rolls. The trend is unsustainable. The disability fund, which is financed by a 0.9% tax on employees and employers, has been running an annual deficit since 2005 and is set to exhaust its reserves by 2018.

A recovering economy would help ease the crunch. So would reforms that make the system less of a burden on taxpayers, and make the process swifter and fairer for the people who truly deserve to receive benefits. That would be a win for everyone.

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