Unlike traditional attorney-client relationships in which the client pays the attorney at the conclusion of a case, attorneys who represent Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) claimants receive payment directly from the Social Security Administration (SSA), even though it is not the SSA’s money. SSDI claimants enter into private contracts with representatives to assist them with their cases, but the SSA steps in and directly subtracts money from SSDI recipients’ first back paychecks before they ever receive them, and transfers it to their attorneys or non-attorney representatives.
The SSA’s role as the middleman in the payment of SSDI representatives artificially inflates the rate of SSDI representation, diminishes disability applicants’ control over representatives’ services and fees (potentially reducing the quality of representation), and adds unnecessary costs for some SSDI beneficiaries. The federal government should stop interfering in the private transactions of disabled individuals and instead provide them their full back-pay benefits.
Representation for SSDI Claimants
Social Security Disability Insurance was enacted in 1956 to prevent poverty among workers who become disabled and can no longer earn a living. In designing the appeals process, policymakers established a non-adversarial process whereby Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) must look out for the claimants’ best interests—promoting, rather than impeding, their claims for benefits.
Nevertheless, more than 90 percent of all claimants are represented at hearings before an ALJ. Such high representation among a population of predominantly low-income individuals stems, at least in part, from the SSA’s role as the middleman in SSDI representative payments.
Direct Fee Withholding
In 1967, Congress enacted a provision that allows attorneys to receive direct payment from the SSA, so long as they abide by the SSA’s specified terms of services and fees. Since this provision was implemented so soon after SSDI began, it is hard to distinguish its impact on SSDI representation. However, evidence from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, which did not provide direct payment until 2005, shows that fee withholding increased representation among SSI applicants.
The SSA’s direct payment eliminates the burden of bill collection for SSDI representatives. Although costly and time-consuming for most attorneys, bill collection is relatively easy for the SSA because it has access to most disabled individuals’ primary source of income through their first SSDI check. Rather than giving individuals their full back-pay benefit checks, the SSA first subtracts representatives’ fees—typically 25 percent of back pay up to $6,000—and sends those fees, less the SSA’s administrative fee, directly to the representatives.
Reasons for Direct Payment
There are two main reasons why direct payment exists—(1) a desire by the SSA to increase access to SSDI representatives, and (2) a desire by representatives to get paid quickly and without question. The SSA’s access to SSDI beneficiary incomes provides an easy avenue for direct payment.
Increased Representation by Ensuring that Representatives Are Paid. The purpose of the SSA’s direct payment is to guarantee representatives payment so that they are more willing to accept disability claim cases. Ensuring payment for private services, however, is not the federal government’s role. After all, the government does not serve as bill collector for thousands of other professional services across the economy, so why does it do so for disability representation?
Presumably, the idea is that direct payment increases disability applicants’ access to representation. That is true. Direct payment does increase disabled individuals’ access to representation because it drastically reduces bill-collection costs for representatives, and minimizes representatives’ risks of having their bills questioned or disputed. This encourages representatives to provide more services.
While guaranteed payment increases the quantity of representation, it can decrease the quality of representation because representatives know they will get paid, and their payment will not come directly from their clients. This creates little incentive to do more than the bare minimum necessary to obtain a favorable decision, meaning that representatives can push most duties onto their clients or administrative staff and still receive the same fee.
Easy Access to Payment Source. The government’s access to SSDI beneficiaries’ income through their first benefit check makes it easy for the SSA to take representatives’ fees from SSDI beneficiaries. Taking the fee from benefit checks is effectively the same as if the SSA took money from individuals’ checking accounts or wallets. The fact that the payment has not yet reached the SSDI beneficiary does not mean it is not the beneficiary’s money or that he should not have control over it. Individuals should have no less ownership or control over their SSDI benefits than they do their ordinary income. A man’s dollar is that man’s dollar whether it takes the form of a government-issued check, a dollar in his checking account, or a dollar in his pocket.
Consequences of Direct Payment
The four main negative consequences of direct payment are:
Increased Representation. Direct payment guarantees that representatives will be paid for the cases they “win.” By eliminating delinquent write-offs, direct payment raises representatives’ payments, increasing their supply, and potentially leading some representatives to target potential SSDI beneficiaries as profitable clients.
Increased access to representation, in and of itself, is not a bad thing; but by increasing the effective fee that representatives receive, direct payment artificially inflates the rate of representation. According to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report, “fee withholding is attracting more inexperienced non-attorneys to the field of disability representation.”
Moreover, the SSA’s role as regulator and direct payer of representatives implies that representation is necessary or beneficial when, in many cases, it is not. The average disability representative receives $2,946 for representing an SSDI claimant, but sometimes that representation entails little more than showing up at a hearing and speaking on behalf of the claimant. Without representation, many individuals could still obtain favorable determinations and have thousands of dollars more in their pockets (the maximum allowable fee is $6,000).
Increased Applicants. Guaranteed payment may lead some attorneys and representatives—particularly those who cannot find other work or who live in low-cost areas where SSDI representation is highly profitable—to seek out individuals whom they can help apply for SSDI benefits.
Attorneys who seek out claimants provide a real disservice to the disabled individuals who they target, as otherwise work-capable individuals may withdraw from or never return to meaningful work. Evidence shows that functional disability is more than a physical state; individuals who are told they cannot work come to believe they cannot work.
To the degree that fee withholding subsidizes representative payments and encourages attorneys to seek out SSDI applicants, it harms the viability of the SSDI program and arguably contributes to the negative stigma that many associate with SSDI beneficiaries.
Usurps Individuals’ Power of the Purse. By taking money directly out of individuals’ checks, the SSA limits disabled individuals’ authority over the quality and quantity of services they receive. A 2014 report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) examined representation of SSDI claimants at the initial Disability Determination Service (DDS) level. Of the cases the OIG examined, only 37 percent of representatives assisted their clients throughout the claim process, 41 percent assisted only with filing the claim, and 22 percent appeared to have provided no assistance to their clients at all.
Although many representatives provide valuable services to disability claimants, direct fee withholding makes it possible for representatives to receive significant fees while providing little to no value to their clients. The OIG report documents the case of a Tennessee woman who filed for SSDI benefits in August 2010. She appointed a non-attorney representative who provided no assistance in the initial claim, and that claim was denied. The representative then filed a reconsideration, but did not help the claimant fill out and submit all the required DDS forms, which took her several days to complete and required resting of her hand between each answer. After a denial at the reconsideration phase, the representative filed an appeal and provided assistance at the hearing where an ALJ allowed the claim in August 2012, two years after the initial claim was filed. In return for very minimal effort, the representative received a $6,000 fee.
Although claimants can fire their representatives at any time or dispute the fees they charge, representatives can still receive payment for the work they did before being fired, and claimants are reluctant to dispute fees charged by their representatives because this could delay their benefit checks.
Establishes a Dangerous Precedent. Direct payment for SSDI representatives establishes a dangerous standard. If increased access or guaranteed payment is sufficient reason for the government to intervene in private transactions, what will prevent all sorts of additional intrusions by the federal government into individuals’ lives? Should the government also provide direct payment to apartment building owners, car dealerships, and colleges?
Tax preparers help individuals and businesses comply with federal taxes, and the government has direct access to individuals’ incomes through their tax returns; so, should the government also provide direct payment to accountants? If not for all individuals, then at least for the disabled because, according to current policy, disabled individuals cannot be trusted to pay for the services they purchase.
Eliminate Direct Payment of SSDI Representative Fees
SSDI representatives provide services to individuals—not to the federal government—and it is an individual’s right and responsibility to pay for the services that he contracts to receive. The fact that many service providers find it difficult to collect payment from their clients does not mean that the federal government should become the fee collector. State law provides avenues, such as small claims court, for individuals and businesses to obtain their just due.
Eliminating the SSA’s role as middleman between disabled individuals and their representatives would better serve disabled individuals by improving SSDI representation and eliminating the federal government’s intrusion into disabled individuals’ finances. Without direct payment:
- The federal government would no longer have the ability to take money from disabled individuals’ benefit checks and give it to attorneys.
- Disabled individuals would have more control over representative services and fees.
- The quality of representation could improve because satisfied clients are more likely to pay their representatives in full and on time.
- Many disabled individuals would be left with more money in their pockets, either because of lower fees or the choice to forgo representation.
Along with many other necessary reforms to Social Security’s failing Disability Insurance program, policymakers should eliminate the SSA’s role in the direct payment of SSDI representatives and leave individuals free to contract and pay representatives in accordance with the services they provide.—Rachel Greszler is Senior Policy Analyst in Economics and Entitlements in the Center for Data Analysis, of the Institute for Economic Freedom and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation.