U.S. Sen. Rand Paul's first day on the presidential campaign trail this year had Democrats comparing him unfavorably to 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Paul, making his first major campaign swing of the year with a series of meetings in New Hampshire, said Wednesday morning that "over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. ... "
"You know the thing is that all of these programs — there's always somebody who is deserving," Paul said. "Everybody in this room knows somebody who is gaming the system. What I tell people is if you look like me and you hop out of your truck, you shouldn't be getting a disability check. Over half the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club. Who doesn't get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts? Everybody over 40 has a back pain."
The Democratic National Committee hastily arranged a conference call for reporters with the chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and a registered nurse who has a son with disabilities, comparing Paul's remarks to Romney's infamous "47 percent" comments.
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Laurie McCray, a disability rights activist whose 25-year old son has Down syndrome and other health problems, said during the call that she was "very appalled" that "someone who claims to have a medical background made fun of and belittled" people with disabilities.
"Sen. Paul's ignorance on the subject shows just how little clue he has about the struggles of everyday Americans," McCray said.
But reporters on the call who were with Paul in New Hampshire noted that his full remarks included an acknowledgment that some people who collect disability benefits desperately need them.
And in a statement provided to the Herald-Leader on Wednesday afternoon, Paul said that "we absolutely should take care of those truly in need of help."
"But the system is broken, and when people can game the system, they are stealing from those who are truly disabled and won't receive the care and aid they need," he said.
Democratic officials said Paul was trying to "have it both ways," arguing that it was his use of the word half that invited a comparison to Romney's assertion that 47 percent of Americans "are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it."
Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, said Paul's comments were "ridiculously reminiscent" of Romney's comments.
"Rand Paul has yet again proven that he's not any new type of Republican when it comes to helping expand opportunity," Buckley said. "He's no different and no better than Mitt Romney."
In response to the DNC's conference call, Doug Stafford, Paul's top political adviser, said in an email message to the Herald-Leader that "if the Democratic Party wants to be the party of fraud in government services, I suppose that's up to them."
The two federal disability programs — Supplemental Security Income, for people with little or no work history, and Social Security Disability Insurance, for people who have worked — pay tens of billions of dollars annually to tens of millions of Americans.
Although dozens of people have been prosecuted for disability fraud in recent years, including some in Kentucky, the Social Security Administration acknowledges that it needs far more aggressive oversight.
The Social Security Administration blames a lack of funding for the dramatic cut in the number of medical reviews it performs to determine whether beneficiaries truly cannot work, from 856,869 reviews in 2002 to 428,568 reviews in 2013. The review backlog stood at 1.3 million cases in 2013.
About 27 percent of the medical reviews performed in 2013 resulted in benefits termination.
"The agency estimates that every $1 spent on medical (reviews) yields about $9 in savings to SSA programs as well as Medicare and Medicaid over 10 years," the Social Security Administration's Office of Inspector General said in an April report. "SSA has preliminarily reported it would need $11.8 billion in funding over the next 10 years to eliminate the medical (review) backlog."
Paul has said repeatedly he will not make a decision about whether to run for president until March or April, but Politico and The Washington Post reported Tuesday that he had hired a campaign manager.