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Social Security Disability Programs: SSA Could Take Steps to Improve Its Assessment of Continued Eligibility

GAO-14-492T Published: Apr 09, 2014. Publicly Released: Apr 09, 2014.
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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration (SSA) reported in January 2014 that it is behind schedule in assessing the continued eligibility of recipients in its two disability programs, Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI),and has accumulated a backlog of 1.3 million continuing disability reviews (CDRs). From fiscal years 2000 to 2011, the numbers of adult and child CDRs conducted fell about 70 percent. Children make up about one fifth of all SSI recipients, and GAO reported in 2012 that many of their CDRs were overdue. For example, more than 24,000 CDRs for children with mental impairments were overdue by 6 or more years, including over 6,000 CDRs for children who were expected to medically improve within 6 to 18 months of their initial determination. GAO also identified several cases which exceeded their scheduled review date by 13 years or more. When CDRs are not conducted as scheduled, the potential for improper payments increases as some recipients receive benefits for which they are no longer eligible. In September 2011, SSA's Office of the Inspector General estimated that SSA had paid about $1.4 billion in SSI benefits to children who should have not received them. SSA attributes delays in performing CDRs to resource limitations and other factors; SSA also generally gives lower priority to conducting CDRs for children receiving SSI. In 2012, GAO recommended that SSA eliminate the existing CDR backlog for children with impairments who are likely to improve, and regularly conduct reviews for this group. While SSA generally agreed with GAO's recommendation, the CDR backlog remains.

During CDRs, disability recipients that SSA determines to have improved medically may be removed from the program; however, several factors may hinder SSA's ability to make this determination. In 2006, GAO reported that 1.4 percent of people who left the disability programs did so because SSA found that they had improved medically. At that time, GAO identified several factors that hindered SSA's ability to assess whether DI and SSI recipients met the medical improvement standard. These included: (1) limitations in SSA guidance for applying the standard; (2) inadequate documentation of prior disability determinations; (3) failure to abide with the requirement that CDR decisions be made on a neutral basis—without a presumption that the recipient remained disabled; and (4) the judgmental nature of the process for assessing medical improvement. Since 2006, SSA has taken some steps to address these issues; however, the agency has not fully clarified policies for assessing medical improvement, as GAO recommended.

Why GAO Did This Study

SSA administers DI and SSI, two disability programs that provided $189 billion in cash benefits to eligible adults and children in 2012. Both the numbers of DI and SSI recipients, as well as program costs, have grown in recent years and are poised to grow further in the future. Both the initial determination of an individual's medical eligibility at the time of application and CDRs after benefits have been granted are key to ensuring the integrity of these programs. CDRs also provide a check on program growth in a time of constrained federal resources. Since 1984, federal law has generally required SSA to find substantial evidence demonstrating medical improvement during a CDR before ceasing a recipient's benefits—known as the medical improvement standard.

In this statement, GAO describes (1) SSA's efforts to monitor DI and SSI beneficiaries' continued eligibility, and (2) factors associated with the medical improvement standard that affect these efforts. This testimony is primarily based on GAO products related to these issues from 2006 and 2012. GAO also updated selected information related to SSA's CDR backlog, budget requests, and guidance for assessing medical improvement as of 2014.


GAO is not making any new recommendations at this time.

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