In 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Paletta reported on the rapid growth in individuals applying for and receiving Social Security disability benefits. Paletta found that Puerto Rico had become a particularly easy place to obtain benefits. Officials with the Social Security Administration (SSA) absurdly claimed that nothing was amiss.
It looks like the SSA is about to get some egg on its face.
Yesterday, Paletta reported that federal investigators, including the FBI, raided doctors’ offices in Puerto Rico as part of a widening probe into disability fraud on the island. A doctor’s opinion that an individual is suffering from a disability is naturally quite helpful in convincing examiners and judges that benefits are warranted. Investigators are apparently looking into whether Puerto Rican doctors are being paid to document that applicants are disabled. From the article:
In 2006, just 36% of initial applicants in Puerto Rico were awarded benefits. In December 2010, the award rate had jumped to 69%. By 2010, nine of the top 10 U.S. ZIP Codes for workers receiving disability benefits were on the island.
At the time, SSA officials said the high number of recipients and the high award rate was due to the island’s weak economy and a lack of adequate health care for workers.
The program is overseen by the Social Security Administration in Baltimore, but each state and territory is responsible for performing an initial screening to determine eligibility. Social Security officials said in 2011 that Puerto Rico had rigorous standards and a virtually nonexistent error rate.
The characteristics of Puerto Rico’s beneficiaries differed from other areas. In addition to the large clusters in certain zip codes, federal data showed that 33.3% of Puerto Rican beneficiaries qualified because of “mood disorders,” a rate that is at least 10 percentage points higher than any U.S. state.
Disability examiners and federal judges say mental disorders are harder to measure and often rely on medical opinions issued by doctors to make a determination.
SSDI was designed as a way to provide benefits for people who can’t work because of mental or physical health problems, and Americans can qualify for benefits because of ailments ranging from severe back pain to terminal cancer.
A lifetime of benefits, including access to Medicare, can cost the government about $300,000 a person.
As I noted in my recent paper on the growing cost of Social Security Disability Insurance, the SSA’s inspector general says that “fraud is an inherent risk in SSA’s disability programs.” But as my paper explains, the problems with the program go way beyond outright fraud:
Given the subjective and convoluted nature of determining SSDI eligibility, it’s likely that erroneous and unjustified payments are far larger in volume than just outright fraud. The huge, complex, and difficult-to-audit system is a perfect breeding ground for awarding and continuing benefits to people who shouldn’t be on the disability rolls.