Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., tells CBS' "60 Minutes"
that a third of disability claims are phony, and his office is working to ferret out those who don't deserve the money.
The disability system in the United States has grown from a small program in the 1950s to one that serves nearly 12 million people today, and it is almost out of money, "60 Minutes" correspondent Steve Kroft reported Sunday.
The program's budget of $135 billion exceeds those of the departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Labor put together.
The statute governing disability says that if there is any job in the economy that a person is able to do he or she is not qualified for disability payments, Coburn told Kroft.
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But a bad economy and an aging baby boomer population have combined to see claims skyrocket. Many people who have run out of unemployment benefits, but are too young to collect Social Security, rely on the program to make do.
Another cause of the spike, Coburn says, is lawyers who pitch their services on TV. A glut in appeals for denied claims has caused a backlog of almost 1 million cases, Kroft reported.
"If the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits," said Marilyn Zahm, a disability judge. In 1971 fewer than 20 percent of disability claimants had lawyers, Zahm said. Now, more than 80 percent do.
Coburn acknowledged that most people who apply for fraudulent benefits are in desperate straights, and they make only about $1,100 a month on disability. The real focus of his probe is the lawyers who get paid millions when they win appeals.
"If all of these people are disabled who apply, I want them all to get it," Coburn said. "And then we need to figure out how we're going to fund it." But he said his investigation and his "common sense" tell him "we've got a system that's being gamed pretty big right now."
The program is expected to run out of money in two to three years, and Coburn said the victims will be people with real disabilities who will have no income because of the "scalawags" who have bankrupted it.
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