The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of 2013 that Social Security is expected to rewrite rules that would give disability judges (ALJs) less independence in their decisions. Although its unclear what exactly the nature of the new rules are the WSJ is reporting that the SSA will revise the job descriptions of disability judges so that judges that award benefits outside the perceived norm will be subject to some sort of agency oversight. The report states that disability judges were already notified of these changes. According to the report, instead of having complete judicial independence disability judges will be “subject to the supervision and management” by other agency officials. The changes are apparently in response to fraud within the program including in Puerto Rico and a former disability judge in West Virginia. The WSJ does note that there is a huge disparity between the number of cases that different disability judges approve. Some judges are approving close to 90% and others denying more than 80% of their cases. Other problems are the dwindling disability fund, the increased number of people applying for disability, and the perceived ease it is to receive disability benefits. However, the data shows that this isn’t the case at all as the approval rating has fell from 67% to 56% between 2010 and 2013. The allowance rate is at a 40 year low according to the article.
Chief ALJ Randall Frye fears that there could be governmental retribution and interference in terms of the outcome in any particular case. The rates of those on disability is in line with these reduced approval ratings as between 2011 and 2012 there was a drop of 38,000 in people approved for disability. A government study also confirms that what is really causing the increase in those applying for disability is based on other factors such as the aging of the baby boom generation, population growth, and the entry of women in the workforce in the 1970s and 80s.
This isn’t to say that the economy has not had an effect on the disability roles but certainly the data shows that there were entirely predictable factors that explain the increase in applicants. In terms of proposed rule changes with the disability judges there has already been consternation by many judges and will likely have a negative effect on the whole system. Neither the applicants, the attorneys or the disability judges will be happy with the changes, and will likely fill the appeals council and federal courts with disability appeals. The bigger problem is how to solve the problem of the huge disparity in how many cases are approved by different disability judges. The merit of a person’s appeal should not depend so heavily on which judge is assigned to the case.