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Failure to Fund Disability Reviews Is Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

Unless the Senate strikes a blow for responsible governance, Congress is on track to continue shortchanging efforts to weed out improper benefit payments in Social Security disability insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — efforts that reduce future deficits and don’t compete with other worthwhile priorities.

Here’s the story.  The 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) allows Congress to provide a specified amount of extra funding each year for certain “program integrity” activities.  These special funding increases don’t require offsetting cuts in other non-defense programs; in effect, they’re outside the BCA’s annual caps on discretionary funding.

At the Social Security Administration, the extra money would help pay for reviews of SSI recipients’ financial status (to ensure that they’re still eligible for the program) and for “continuing disability reviews” in both DI and SSI (to end payments to beneficiaries who’ve recovered from their impairments).

Continuing disability reviews shrink eventual benefit payments by nearly $10 for every $1 they cost, the Social Security Administration estimates.  In short, they reduce the deficit.

Congress nevertheless failed to take full advantage of the BCA’s flexibility in 2012, authorizing just $483 million of the allowable $623 million.  And if the House gets its way on this year’s funding, lawmakers will spend the same amount in 2013 — even though the BCA allows up to $751 million for this year.  (The Administration requested the full amount, and the Senate Appropriations Committee agreed.)  The full Senate is expected to consider the final appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013 this week.

Lots of groups have ideas for changing the disability programs, which are facing rising costs and growing caseloads as the baby boomers age and more women qualify for benefits based on their work.  The Administrative Conference of the United States will meet this week to review the process for determining whether a claimant is disabled; the Social Security Advisory Board hosted an all-day event last week on potential program reforms; and a House Ways and Means subcommittee will hold a hearing this week on the programs’ financial challenges, which will require action by 2016.

But, all of those debates focus on the medium and long term.  Funding disability reviews properly is a sensible, money-saving step that Congress can and should take right now.