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60 Minutes Takes Down Disability Benefits

On Sunday, 60 Minutes aired a scathing take-down of our nation’s Federal Disability Insurance Program (SSDI), the arm of Social Security that offers benefits to people who can’t work due to disabilities. The graphic accompanying the feature, titled Disability USA, shows disembodied hands greedily reaching for money as it falls from the sky.

A judge who hears appeals in disability rulings, Marilyn Zahm, says in the story, “If the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits.”

Republican Sen. Ted Coburn from Oklahoma was arguably the star of the program, which accuses the Social Security Administration of fraud, corruption and waste. His office has been investigating the cause for the last three years and says that at least 25 percent of those who receive disability benefits actually are ineligible.

Reporter Steve Kroft travels to the border of Kentucky and West Virginia, which he says serves as a paradigm of the faulty system. It’s an area racked with unemployment and poverty. People have come to rely on disability checks to sustain themselves.

When Kroft asked two whistleblowers from the regional Social Security Office, Jennifer Griffith and Sarah Carver, whether most of the people who receive checks are actually disabled, Carver said, “not always, no.” Griffith said, “more often than not, no.”

The main villain of the story is a local lawyer, Eric C. Conn. According to 60 Minutes, he runs the third largest disability center in the country. His ads “guarantee success.” How could this be? A reportedly extra-cozy relationship with a judge who approves virtually all the disability claims that come across his desk.

Two whistleblowers from national law firm Binder & Binder also spoke to CBS, calling their former employer a “legal factory.” They say business boomed when the economy fell, because so many people were out of work and in need of money. Ailments like fibromyalgia with subjective, difficult-to-prove symptoms were easy ways to get disabilities checks to their clients.

The report is juicy and entertaining, and it’s certainly made a stir, though perhaps not the stir producers hoped. Media outlets from The Nation to Media Matters have fired back, saying 60 Minutes and Coburn intentionally left out vital facts about the effectiveness and importance of the Disability Insurance program.

Media Matters quoted Rebecca Vallas, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, who called Disability USA sensationalist and partisan.

Any misuse of these vital programs is unacceptable; however it is unfortunate and disappointing when media reports mislead their viewers by painting entire programs with the brush of one or a few bad apples, without putting them in the context of the millions of individuals who receive benefits appropriately, and for whom they are a vital lifeline -- as well as the many disability advocates around the country who work hard to protect the rights of individuals with significant disabilities and serious illnesses who have been wrongly denied Social Security disability benefits.

At The Nation, Greg Mitchell weighed in.

The report barely mentioned perhaps the most salient fact:  the steep increase in the number of people in the program is mainly attributable to the aging of the enormous Baby Boomer population.

Another reporter at The Nation, George Zornick, also wrote up a dissent.

It certainly gave a frightening impression. But viewers got little valuable information about the actual fraud rates for SSDI. Kroft didn’t interview any policy experts, nor any spokespeople for the program nor anyone who actually receives benefits.

He references a number of statistics he says were unfairly left out of the story. Two-thirds of disability applicants are denied on first application, and the United State has what is reportedly the second most restrictive benefits program in the world, behind only South Korea.

The back and forth isn’t likely to die down soon. On Tuesday morning, Sen. Coburn appeared on Fox & Friends to discuss the issue. His goal, he said, was to root out those who are taking advantage of a system that lacks oversight, not to go after Americans who deserve disability insurance. 

This isn’t about the people who are disabled. It’s about we designed a system that incentivizes attorneys to take advantage of it and overworked [judges] and the staff at the Social Security Administration by not putting the proper amount of people there to handle the claims.

Rewarding judges and Social Security workers based on the quality of their work, not how many claims they process, he said, would go a long way towards fixing the problem.

Sen. Coburn released a report, “How Some Legal, Medical, and Judicial Professionals Abused Social Security Disability Programs for the Country’s Most Vulnerable: A Case Study of the Conn Law Firm, on Monday to the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs.

Chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) said that the findings reveal a lack of oversight, whether a disturbing, singular incident or an example of wide-spread unaccountability. “While we don't have any evidence that this is more than an isolated case, one example of inappropriate actions of this nature is one too many,” he said.

Image from 60 Minutes.

By: Avery Kleinman
Former Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman At the time of publication, Avery Kleinman was the Beth Daley Impact Fellow for the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Public Health and Science

Related Content: Health Care Fraud, Media Criticism

Authors: Avery Kleinman

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