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60 Minutes – Missing the “Whole Truth” on Social Security’s Disability Insurance Program

Air Date: 10-6-13

By Jeffrey A. Rabin

“60 Minutes” has presented a story based on half the facts and filled with innuendos aimed at misleading the public.  This time the television show targeted the Social Security Disability Insurance programs. Sadly, the reporter attacked the disabled population, and their advocates, with sarcasm, ridicule and inaccurate generalizations. These were supported by a politician not even familiar with the history of the program he is attacking.

Many of the misstatements made in the 60 Minutes episode run on October 6, 2013 were based on over simplifications of the program and its requirements. The intent of the segment was clear when the reporter began the story talking about a “secret welfare system” and referenced a “disability industrial complex.”

Before we identify specific points raised in the program here are several facts:

  • No one gets approved for Social Security disability benefits unless either a Social Security physician, or a Social Security Administrative Law Judge, agrees that medical and legal standards are met.  No attorney or private doctor can force a favorable decision.
  • Social Security’s own actuaries have reported that the growth in the program is almost entirely attributable to the changing demographics of the U.S. work force i.e., Baby Boomers getting older, women entering the work force in greater numbers since the 1970s, and the delay in retirement age so that people stay on SSDI longer.  The growth has little to do with medical standards, attorney involvement or fraud – unless you are a reporter creating a story or a politician trying to get publicity.
  • The law requires Claimants to prove the severity of their medical impairments, including symptoms such as pain and fatigue.  Fewer than 40% of all applicants are approved for benefits, even after appealing initial denials.  Further, the percentage of applications ultimately denied is increasing – clearly not the inference from this reporting.
  • Many people applied for disability benefits during the recent recession – that does NOT mean that their applications were approved. In fact, as noted above, only those supported by medical proof accepted by SSA’s own reviewers received benefits. The number of applications actually declined in 8 of the 10 states with the highest levels of unemployment between 2007 and 2011.
  • Attorney fees do NOT come from the federal treasury – they are paid from retroactive benefits due to Claimants. There would be no benefit to the U.S. Treasury if attorneys’ fees were not paid; the money would still be paid out, just to the Claimant instead of the representative.

In terms of specific errors, at the very beginning Senator Tom Coburn states that the law is “pretty clear” that if there is any job in the economy that you can perform that you are not eligible for disability. It is sad that a U.S. Senator investigating a program that serves millions of Americans is just wrong on the legal standard. It is “pretty clear” that Mr. Coburn has an agenda.  Eligibility is based upon whether a Claimant can prove that medical problems prevent the ability to do past work and, considering age, education and work skills, the ability to perform any “substantial gainful activity” available in the national economy.  The law is much more realistic and complex than Mr. Coburn’s over-simplification.

Administrative Law Judge Marilyn Zahm surprisingly attacked the program. However, she seemed to ignore the fact that her own union members have been denying increasing numbers of claims. She also ignored the reality that if the gross numbers of people on SSDI and SSI are increasing it would only be because her union members agreed the medical and legal standards were met.  She pointed out that more people are represented now than in 1970 but never pointed out the fact that almost all ALJs want Claimants to be represented so that the files are more developed and the ALJ can make a better decision. In fact, many hearing offices set special hearings just to encourage unrepresented Claimants to find lawyers.

There is no need to comment on the investigations of the particular ALJ and the Social Security attorney.  There are about 1,500 ALJs and 60 Minutes found one being investigated – I suspect that more than .1 of 1% of journalists should be investigated. As for the attorney who declined to be interviewed, why not talk to any of the thousands of attorneys who spend their entire careers fighting for the disabled and make fees averaging less than $3,000 per case, only getting paid when they win?  If the attorney is unethical he should be investigated and charged.  However, one unethical attorney is not an indictment of the profession any more than one poor physician indicts all doctors, or a publicity-seeking Senator who does not know the basic law of a program he claims to be investigating, reflects all politicians.

Senator Coburn also commented that the system is “broken” since it is not managed and Congress does not exercise oversight. Apparently the Senator is not aware that the House Ways and Means Committee has a Social Security subcommittee which regularly oversees the program and its requirements and has held dozens of hearings in recent years on disability related issues.  Nor does he accept blame that for the last two years his Congress has failed to authorize the money needed by Social Security to continue their system improvements which had been reducing backlogs significantly. Even President Bush gave Social Security appropriate funding for operations! This was just an easy way for Mr. Coburn to manipulate the press and get face time on national television without any cost.

The reality is that people on SSDI live on roughly 50-55% of what they were earning before they became disabled. A quarter of SSDI recipients live below the poverty level in the United States.  1 in 5 male recipients and 1 in 6 female recipients of SSDI die within 5 years of their receipt of benefits. SSDI beneficiaries are three times more likely to die sooner than others their same age.  This is not a program rife with fraud – this is a program vital to millions of Americans suffering from severe medical conditions.  60 Minutes has done a disservice to the hard working staff of Social Security employees, to advocates who work hard to protect the legal rights of the disabled, and to the millions of United States citizens and residents suffering from severe, disabling medical illnesses.

 

 

 

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