Supplemental Security Income:

Better Management Oversight Needed for Children's Benefits

GAO-12-497: Published: Jun 26, 2012. Publicly Released: Jun 26, 2012.

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What GAO Found

The number of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) child applicants and recipients with mental impairments has increased substantially for more than a decade, even though the Social Security Administration (SSA) denied, on average, 54 percent of such claims from fiscal years 2000 to 2011. Factors such as the rising number of children in poverty and increasing diagnosis of certain mental impairments have likely contributed to this growth. In fiscal year 2011, the most prevalent primary mental impairments among children found medically eligible were (1) attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, (2) speech and language delay, and (3) autism, with autism claims growing most rapidly since fiscal year 2000. State disability determination services (DDS) examiners also consider the impact of additional, or “secondary,” impairments when making a decision, and when present, these impairments were used to support 55 percent of those cases GAO reviewed that were allowed in fiscal year 2010. However, SSA has not consistently collected those impairment data, limiting its understanding of how all impairments may affect decisions.

DDS examiners generally rely on a combination of key medical and nonmedical information—such as medical records and teacher assessments—to determine a child’s medical eligibility for SSI. In its case file review, GAO found that examiners usually cited four to five information sources as the basis for their decision, and that being on medication was never the sole source of support for decisions. Moreover, examiners cited medication and treatment information, such as reports of improved functioning, as a basis for denying benefits in more than half of cases that GAO reviewed, despite a perception among some parents that medicating their child would result in an award of benefits. Examiners also reported they sometimes lacked complete information to inform their decision making. For example, several DDS offices reported obstacles to obtaining information from schools, which they believe to be critical in understanding how a child functions. Examiners also do not routinely receive information from SSA field offices on multiple children who receive benefits in the same household, which SSA’s fraud investigations unit has noted as an indicator of possible fraud or abuse. Without such information, examiners may be limited in their ability to identify threats to program integrity.

SSA has conducted fewer continuing disability reviews (CDR) for children since 2000, even though it is generally required by law to review the medical eligibility of certain children at least every 3 years. From fiscal year 2000 to 2011, childhood CDRs overall fell from more than 150,000 to about 45,000 (a 70 percent decrease), while CDRs for children with mental impairments dropped from more than 84,000 to about 16,000 (an 80 percent decrease). The most recent data show that more than 400,000 CDRs were overdue for children with mental impairments, with some pending by as many as 13 years or more. Of the more than 24,000 CDRs found to be 6 or more years overdue, 25 percent were for children expected to medically improve within 6 to 18 months of their initial allowance. SSA acknowledged the importance of conducting such reviews, but said that due to resource constraints and other workloads, such as initial claims, most childhood CDRs are a lower priority. SSA’s process for issuing waivers from the CDR legal requirement lacks transparency, and without these reviews, SSA could continue to forgo significant program savings.

Why GAO Did This Study

SSA’s SSI program provides cash benefits to eligible low-income individuals with disabilities, including children. In 2011, SSA paid more than $9 billion to about 1.3 million disabled children, the majority of whom received benefits due to a mental impairment. GAO was asked to assess (1) trends in the rate of children receiving SSI benefits due to mental impairments over the past decade; (2) the role that medical and nonmedical information, such as medication and school records, play in the initial determination of a child’s eligibility; and (3) steps SSA has taken to monitor the continued medical eligibility of these children.

To do this, GAO analyzed program data; interviewed SSA officials; conducted site visits to 9 field offices and 11 state DDS offices across the nation; reviewed a generalizable sample of 298 claims for select impairments from fiscal year 2010; reviewed relevant federal laws and regulations; and interviewed external experts, among others.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that SSA take steps to ensure needed information, such as secondary impairment data and school records, is consistently collected; make its CDR waiver process more transparent; and conduct additional childhood CDRs. SSA agreed with four recommendations and disagreed with one that the agency conduct additional childhood CDRs, citing resource constraints. The GAO recommendation acknowledges resource constraints, as discussed more fully within the report.

For more information, contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or bertonid@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To strengthen eligibility decisions and improve monitoring of children with mental impairments within the SSI program, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Deputy Commissioner of Operations to ensure that field offices notify their respective DDS offices of those claims in which multiple children within the same household are applying for or receiving SSI benefits so that examiners will be better able to identify potential fraud or abuse in the program and elevate these cases to the attention of SSA's fraud investigations unit.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: SSA indicates that as its resources allow, the agency will explore ways to provide the recommended notification; however, no timeframe is noted.

    Recommendation: To strengthen eligibility decisions and improve monitoring of children with mental impairments within the SSI program, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Deputy Commissioners of Retirement and Disability Policy and Operations to take steps to ensure that DDS examiners accurately record information on secondary impairments in order to improve SSA's understanding of how multiple impairments may influence decisions.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: SSA's agreed with this recommendation, but did not provide information or an action plan to implement it.

    Recommendation: To strengthen eligibility decisions and improve monitoring of children with mental impairments within the SSI program, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Deputy Commissioner of Quality Performance to eliminate the existing CDR backlog of cases for children with impairments who are likely to improve and, on an ongoing basis, conduct CDRs at least every 3 years for all children with impairments who are likely to improve, as resources are made available for these purposes.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: SSA continues to disagree with this recommendation, stating that although the agency would like to conduct more Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) according to the goals for CDRs that Congress has established, budget restrictions have forced the agency to forgo many CDRs in recent years. Given more funding, SSA would like to increase the number of CDRs done and target cases that are most likely to show medical improvement. While recognizing SSA's constrained resources, we still believe that it is important to reduce the CDR backlog in order to enhance the program's integrity.

    Recommendation: To strengthen eligibility decisions and improve monitoring of children with mental impairments within the SSI program, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Deputy Commissioner of Operations to identify the extent to which DDS examiners nationwide experience obstacles in obtaining teacher assessments and school records. To the extent these are identified, SSA should clarify the nature of these obstacles and formulate steps to address them. Such steps could include increased DDS outreach to primary and secondary schools, increased SSA coordination with the Department of Education, or additional guidance to DDS offices.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: SSA noted various obstacles to obtaining school records, as well as some steps to overcome them, emphasizing nationwide and regional outreach efforts by SSA to schools and standardizing the records request sent to schools. Such standardized requests will become part of SSA's Disability Case Processing System. SSA stated that a planning strategy for its outreach activities will be developed in FY13, with the work done to examine current polices and implement changes in FY14. The agency will include the standardized requests at some future point, depending on the case processing system's successful implementation nationwide. SSA has not specified the actions or timeframe needed to implement any such changes.

    Recommendation: To strengthen eligibility decisions and improve monitoring of children with mental impairments within the SSI program, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Deputy Commissioner of Quality Performance and Commissioner of Operations to take actions to ensure that SSA's CDR waiver process is open, transparent, and public. This may include promulgating formal guidance for issuing waivers, and a process for making information about issued waivers available to the public.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Open

    Comments: SSA reports that the agency is currently developing a more formal waiver process, and plans to send a written notice to Congress describing the agency's CDR waiver actions for fiscal year 2013. GAO will close this recommendation when SSA sends Congress the written notice, presumably after the close of FY13.

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