If you live in Pennsylvania and hope to receive federal disability benefits, you are in luck if your case is assigned to Judge Charles Bridges.
The Harrisburg federal disability judge has awarded disability payments to 88 percent of the cases coming before him over the past seven months. If, however, your case ends up in front of Judge Leslie Perry-Dowdell just a few counties over, your chances for benefits are cut drastically as she awards benefits in only 24 percent of the cases she hears. The national average is 47 percent.
Local Harrisburg CBS reporter Chris Papst reports: “Since 2005, Judge Bridges has awarded disability benefits to 15,279 people—by far, the most of any judge in the country; an amount roughly six times the average and nearly double that of America’s next highest active judge.”
In terms of benefits, we are not talking chump change, either. People receiving disability benefits will get an estimated $300,000 over their lifetime. Based on Judge Bridges’s case numbers, Papst reports that “he’s personally awarded approximately $4.6 billion in taxpayer dollars.” Talk about the power of the purse. And, absolute power it is.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) says it cannot do much about judges who hand out disability awards left and right. Judges have lifetime appointments and, as they told Papst, they are given “‘decisional independence’ which protects them from ‘disciplinary measures’ including ‘removal, suspension, or reduction in pay or grade.’”
The shame of this is that the Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) program is an important safety net program for a highly vulnerable population—and it’s in trouble. Over the past decade, there has been a 45 percent increase in the number of people receiving disability benefits. As National Public Radio reporter Chana Joffe-Walt noted in her extensive report on SSDI, the stunning increase in those receiving disability “has come even as medical advances have allowed many more people to remain on the job, and new laws have banned workplace discrimination against the disabled.”
While the aging population and the recession have accelerated the increase in the rolls, many say that the real driver has been the 1984 liberalization in the definition of disability, adding in mental health and musculoskeletal disorders which are more subjective than cancer, strokes, or, say, Lou Gehrig’s disease. In addition, the SSA takes education and age into consideration when determining disability status. People over age 55 are considered to be of “advanced age,” relaxing the criteria for benefits. With people living and working longer—categorizing 56-year-olds in “advanced age” seems more than a little out of touch. Also, under current criteria, even proficiency in the English language is somehow deemed related to disability. Individuals who allegedly cannot communicate in English can qualify for benefits at age 45—five years earlier than proficient English speakers.
Congress and the SSA need to get a handle on this, and soon. Disability judges need to be reined in so that eligibility standards are applied more evenly. Since they are administrative judges—i.e., they’re SSA employees—they should have a set term that are subject to renewal, not lifetime appointments. Their performance should be subject to review based on meeting fundamental standards of competence and adherence to the legal criteria for eligibility.