WASHINGTON, DC – Roughly 117,000 Americans double-dipped by cashing unemployment and Social Security disability checks during the height of the jobs crisis, costing taxpayers a combined $856 million in fiscal 2010 according to a government watchdog agency. The additional strain on the system will make the SSDI trust fund insolvent in four short years. With most eyes fixed on the election battle between President Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, it was easy to miss the alarming report by the Government Accountability Office that was initially released this summer.
Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Ok., announced at the end of last month, “This report shows that Congress has failed to hold agencies accountable.” The lawmaker has yet to outline legislation for greater oversight, but on Wednesday afternoon he will discuss the results of an 18-month investigation into the approval process for Social Security Disability Insurance.
Coburn, a critic of government waste, famously demanded an inquiry in May of last year after the television show “Taboo” on the National Geographic Channel featured a 350-pound, 29-year old man who lives as an “adult baby” and gets by on disability benefits. The Social Security Disability Insurance trust fund is slated to be insolvent in just four years – as both Democrats and Republicans increasingly recognize that millions who can’t find work after exhausting their unemployment benefits have turned to the $128 billion a year program for income. Meanwhile, the protracted consequences of the recession have drastically reduced the balances in most state unemployment insurance trust funds.
But the data unearthed by the GAO shows that many Americans have simultaneously relied on disability and unemployment insurance – and that overlapping payments are allowed under the programs’ different eligibility requirements. Disability insurance is intended for those whose medical conditions prevent them from working, while unemployment provides a cushion for job seekers who were laid-off.
Because the two programs are meant to address separate needs, lobbying groups for the disabled see no cause for a congressional crackdown. “The mere fact that you received unemployment benefits isn’t determinative of whether you’re ‘disabled,’” said Ethel Zelenske, director of governmental affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. “It’s comparing apples and oranges when you look at the two schemes.”
Instead of setting sweeping regulations about who can receive unemployment and disability, Zelenske said that decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
The Social Security Administration stressed a similar perspective in a 2010 memo to the administrative law judges who determine eligibility for disability benefits.
“It is often uncertain whether we will find a person who applies for unemployment benefits ultimately to be disabled under our rules, and our decision-making process can be quite lengthy,” the memo said. “Therefore, it is SSA’s position that individuals need not choose between applying for unemployment insurance and Social Security disability benefits.”
Under the rules for disability, recipients must have a condition that prevents them from participating in “substantial gainful activity,” or work that generated more than $12,000 of income in 2010. But some states allow workers with earnings below that level to qualify for unemployment benefits as well.
“The GAO accurately described the legal situation, which is really complex,” said David Heymsfeld, policy adviser for the American Association of People with Disabilities. “If you can qualify for both programs, we don’t see a basis for objecting. Heymsfeld noted that stopping the overlap wouldn’t save “big bucks,” either $281 million a year on Social Security Disability or $575 million from unemployment based on the GAO breakdown.
No current federal law authorizes a reduction or elimination of benefits in the case of double-dipping. And neither the Social Security Administration nor the Labor Department has “a process to indentify these overlapping benefit payments” being provided in part through state governments, the GAO said. The GAO rejected the “apples and oranges” argument by pointing out both programs replace lost earnings and therefore have similar goals and engage in similar activities that occasionally overlap.
The average double-dipper collected $7,316 in fiscal 2010. About 1,500 reaped more than $40,000 a year. One individual highlighted in the report got $62,000 during that period, and having since maxed out 99 weeks of unemployment in the middle of 2011 was still collecting $2,377 a month in disability as of April.
In order to determine possible fraud, the GAO will further investigate payments to eight recipients. One suffering from back pain collected $107,000 over the course of 36 months while also working construction jobs in New Mexico, Wisconsin, Kansas and Montana. The GAO concludes that both programs “face serious fiscal sustainability challenges, promoting the need to examine opportunities for potential cost savings.”
But in a bureaucratic paradox, Assistant Labor Secretary Jane Oates responded to the report in a letter noting that her agency – which requested $12 billion for fiscal 2013 – lacks the budget and manpower to identify these possible savings.
“Assessing overlapping benefit payments and determining appropriate recommendations and course of action based on this assessment,” Oates wrote, “will require significant time, effort and resources that may exceed those currently available.”