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Johnson Opening Statement: Hearing on Securing the Future of the Social Security Disability Insurance Program

September 14, 2012

Good morning and welcome to the fifth and last hearing in our series on securing the future of the Social Security Disability Insurance program.   

Over the course of the series we’ve heard about the program’s striking and continuing growth: at a time when workers paying into the system have increased nearly 70 percent between 1970 and today, the number of people collecting disability checks has increased by over 300 percent, from 2.6 to 10.8 million.  By 2021, the number of beneficiaries will exceed 12 million and total benefits paid will reach over $201 billion.  

That’s a 52 percent increase over the $132 billion paid in benefits last year.

We’ve heard how some of that growth is caused by factors like the size of the overall workforce, more women in the workforce, and the aging of the baby boomers into their disability-prone years.  And some of the growth has been caused by Congress’s decisions that expanded the ways in which people could qualify for benefits.   

We have heard about the people who try to defraud the system by falsely claiming they are disabled.  We’ve heard that Social Security’s efforts to conduct continuing eligibility reviews are a shifting priority, adding unnecessary costs and weakening public trust in the program.

We’ve heard how last century’s view of disability hasn’t kept up with this century’s advances in medicine, technology, and the workplace, resulting in a program that pays people not to work.  

In fact, GAO has designated the program “high-risk” because the medical criteria and occupational information relied on to make benefit decisions are out-of-date.  

We’ve heard that the World Health Organization and many distinguished medical experts look at disability today as the individual’s ability to function in different environments, especially with the assistance of technology or workplace accommodations for the disabled.

In the hearing series we have also heard how important it is to make the right decision as early in the process as possible.  We’ve walked through the complicated, lengthy, and open-ended initial determination and appeals process that enables claimant representatives to drag out appeals in hopes of getting an award.  

We’ve heard how “outlier” judges, many of whom award disability benefits in most of the cases they hear  — in other words rubberstamping their cases — can’t be managed or questioned about the decisions they are making on behalf of the agency, leaving the process virtually unmanaged and adding more costs.   

We’ve also heard how the courts have taken it upon themselves to reinterpret Congress’s will, creating inequities and inconsistencies.

We’ve heard again and again that we must keep this program strong for those who truly cannot work.  We’ve heard that the disability insurance program is on an unsustainable path and that unless Congress acts, in 2016 the program will be able to pay only 79 percent of benefits, putting individuals with disabilities at risk.  

The hearing series has been about how the disability insurance program works, problems plaguing the program, and the need for sensible changes to make it work better.

This series has raised important questions, including:

  • Is the concept of disability that existed in 1956 still appropriate in today’s 21st century economy?  
  • Are there better ways to support individuals with disabilities who can remain in the workplace instead of paying them to stop working?  
  • Are there ways to award benefits sooner and provide a fair, timely appeals process?
  • What are the risks of doing nothing?

Today we will hear several views about where the existing system falls short and how it might be fixed as well as some new approaches that are already working.  What each of our witnesses has in common is that they believe we can fundamentally do better.

We will also hear from the business community on the amazing successes of employers who are hiring those with disabilities and the challenges they face keeping those with disabilities on the job.  

I want to thank all the Members of this Subcommittee for engaging in this much-needed conversation.  I know we are committed to continuing this dialogue.  Together, we will find answers to securing the future of the disability insurance program for generations to come.


Ways and Means Press Office

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