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Could Social Media Help Catch Abuse of Disability Benefits?

IG calls for pilot program to help uncover Social Security fraud.

For years, a rock musician collected federal benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance. But this January, the Social Security Administration cut him off, the agency’s inspector general told a House panel on Wednesday.

The reason? His posts on social media revealed to agency claims reviewers and IG auditors that he was continuing to perform and raise funds for his organization.

“Social media is good tool, and we have to move to the 21st century,” Patrick O’Carroll Jr., inspector general of SSA, told the claims and benefits subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Images from Facebook and Twitter “are part of the picture, though not the picture itself,” when it comes to detecting undeserving recipients.

The issue arose at a hearing called by subcommittee Chairman James Lankford, R-Okla., on why SSA is behind schedule in assessing eligibility in both disability insurance and Supplemental Security income -- with the backlog of continuing reviews now at 1.3 million. The hearing also examined the rising costs of the program that some say is riddled with fraud.

“This program intended to fight poverty is perpetuating poverty,” Lankford said, citing some administrative law judges who are approving as many as 80 percent of recipients’ claims.

Ranking member Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., joined Lankford recently in sending a letter with 11 recommendations for guidance for improving the accuracy of claims reviews to improve overall “program integrity.”

But she and other Democrats stressed that the program known as continuing disability reviews is a “good investment,” bringing in $9 in recovered payments for every $1 allocated. The 1.3 million backlog and the recently reported $83.6 million in improper payments “are unacceptable,” Speier said. “But part of what we’re asking is going to require more resources to do it well.”

When the program won a surge in funding in 1996, lawmakers and agency officials noted, the backlog that existed then was eliminated in six years.

Since the continuing reviews began in the 1980s, they have contributed to a savings of $2.7 billion. According to Daniel Bertoni, director of education, workforce and income security programs at the Government Accountability Office, the numbers of adult and child case reviews conducted fell by 70 percent from fiscal 2000 to fiscal 2011. “The SSA has taken some steps, but it continues to be problematic,” he said. The system of workplace disability insurance, which has been on GAO’s list of high-risk programs for a decade, “needs modernizing,” he said. “We’re no longer the manual-labor economy we were 20 years ago.”

Marianna La Canfora, SSA’s acting deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy, argued for steadier long-term funding, saying, “You get what you pay for.” She said she was pleased Congress came through with full funding this year that will allow 510,000 medical continuing disability reviews and 888,000 next year. The Obama administration, she noted, has proposed to guarantee funding for the future.

Meanwhile, the agency in recent years has set “priorities of what returns the most to taxpayers,” which means more focus on adult fraud and less on cases involving children, because children’s benefits are lower. “As history has shown,” she testified, “the provision (or availability) of timely, sustained, and adequate resources is the single most important way to ensure that backlogs do not develop in program integrity reviews.”

Jennifer Nottingham, president of the National Association of Disability Examiners, noted that the SSA workforce, which has declined by 11,000 in recent years, struggled with the hiring freeze and the need for training.

Using social media to expose fraud “could be useful,” Nottingham said.

But when Speier asked the SSA official whether the use of social media was allowed under agency policy, La Canfora said her policy is not to use such evidence “because it’s only one piece.”

O’Carroll said he would like a pilot program in using social media in fraud investigations. And though grateful for the 22,000 annual referrals his auditors receive from SSA staff, he thinks the agency needs to “better balance customer service with stewardship responsibilities.”

(Image via Twin Design /