Tom Sullivan, the Fox News Radio show host who claimed that the bipolar disorder diagnosis was simply a “fad,” has tried to backtrack on his disparaging and thoughtless remarks. In a Facebook posting, he claims the comments were taken out of context from a lengthy, two-hour discussion about the Social Security Disability (SSD) Fund being projected to run out of money at the end of 2016.
Sullivan suggests the reason the fund is running out of money so fast is because of the increase in disability awards made for people diagnosed with a mental illness.
But a review of the annual report issued by the U.S. government’s Social Security agency demonstrates that even this claim is simply false.
Here’s what Tom Sullivan wrote on his Facebook page a few days ago:
The program began with the subject being the huge increase in disability claims made to the Social Security Disability Fund which is going broke in 2016.
The increase in claims is startling and the number one reason for the big increase in claims is mental illness and a subset (according the way Soc Security categorizes) of mood disorder.
First, let’s deal with the claim about the SSD fund going broke. Congress will never let any fund connected to Social Security “go broke,” so it’s a strawman argument from the get-go. They will fix the cash flow problem, just as they have many times in the past to this very same problem with this very same fund.1 It’s not even something to worry about, until Congress tackles the Social Security problem as a whole. (And I’m not holding my breath that Congress will ever get the backbone to do that.)
Second, let’s look at the specific claim that the “number one reason for the big increase in claims is mental illness.” To shed light on this claim, we turn to the Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, 2013. Specifically, I’m going to look at the section entitled, Awards to Disabled Workers (Tables 39–45, PDF). The table of interest to us to answer this question is Table 40, which lists the totals and percentages for years 1960 – 2013 of disabled workers awarded, by diagnostic group. This is the correct table to look at, because it directly addresses the claim that new awards to people with mental illness are the primary cause of the problem.2
Since 1990, the percentage for mental illness-based disabled awards has ranged from 20.9 to 26.1 percent. It’s actually enjoyed a steady decline since 2008. For the most recent year data is available (2013), the percentage was 16.8 percent.
Now, let’s look at other diagnoses from that same table. While few of them reach the significant numbers of mental illness, one category has actually seen a steady increase since 1995 — musculoskeletal system and connective tissue diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthrosis, joint pain and stiffness, back problems, etc.). Starting at a low of 13.4 percent in 1994, it has risen steadily over the past 20 years to its current high of 35.9 percent.
To be clear, musculoskeletal system and connective tissue diseases are the number one reason for the increase in claims to the Society Security Disability Fund — not mental illness.
And no matter how you slice and dice the numbers, there has been a consistent and very real decline in the percentage of disabled worker awards due to mental illness since 2008.
So no, Tom Sullivan, mental illness is not the number one reason for the big increase in disability award numbers. It’s the aging population. So if you want to make real cuts to this Social Security benefit, you should first turn to older citizens, not people with mental illness.3
Read Sullivan’s Facebook post: Tom Sullivan – A REPOST FROM YESTERDAY
- Congress simply transfers money from the main Social Security fund into the Disability Fund. It’s not rocket science. Even bills forwarded to stop this from happening have cutoffs that ensure the Disability Fund will remain solvent until 2020 or so. [↩]
- It’s possible that Sullivan or one of his staffers was looking at this table instead, which lists the total number of people who receive money from the disability fund. This table, however, can’t tell you which diagnostic category is responsible for the biggest increase. However, even this table clearly shows the downward trending of people receiving disability disbursements from this fund due to mental illness and the upward trend of people receiving payments who have a musculoskeletal system or connective tissue disease. [↩]
- Which, of course, he would never suggest doing, because they have a very powerful and well-financed lobby, whereas people with mental illness do not. [↩]