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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
Beth Daley Impact Fellow, POGO

Avery Kleinman Avery Kleinman is 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

Submitted by Ginger at: March 20, 2014
Sad to hear 60 Minutes would present such information. Not everyone who applies for SSD is a crook, a bum or a liar. Most people are honest and going to the process can be a horrible experience, who in their right mind would want to lie about it? In this economy, the job situation has changed, employers are become extremely demanding and many workers have to work two jobs to make ends meet, stress and poverty will take a toll in the body and mental health. If you are over 45, good luck getting a job. Shame, shame on those who believe sick people are trying to take advantage of a system that is defective and obsolete. Never judge a disable person who looks normal and healthy, there is such thing as invisible disabilities and putting up a good face to the world, this doesn't mean the pain and suffering are not real. Shame on a system that allows attorneys to make easy money, because without one you have very little chance to win your case. Shame on those who want to take the dignity of others who have worked hard and honestly for years and deserve their benefits. Shame on you 60 minutes, do a better job correcting your mistakes and false judgment.
Submitted by Marie at: March 12, 2014
I would love to hear how long it took for those on fibromyalgia to get disability. I've been fighting for 6 years & 3 months. My son is now in middle school. My lawyer says the judges I have seen out right lied about what my doctor did or didn't do. They ignored evidence. i would nt be so mad if the judges gave me an accurate, honest denial. It's too bad people have to suffer for a few people who try to get SSDI when they shouldn't. I made good money at my previous job not working isn't fun, the money stress, emotional stress, the depression of barely getting by and not being able to support your child. Judges are getting AWAY WITH DENYING ANYONE WITH FIBROMYALGIA OR ANYONE THEY JUST THINK "OH, i THINK THEY ARE FAKING IT" INSTEAD OF looking at the evidence: what the doctors say. It's wrong to make people go years of fighting for something they really need. I wish I could work, I felt good about myself, enjoyed most of the people I work with. This is a narrow-minded, biased report. I am appalled at 60 minutes for not listening to our lawyers and the abuse of power these judges have getting away with.
Submitted by tossurgnightmare at: January 27, 2014
If i could have my life back as a teacher-I would do it in a second. If the CA Medical Board would do their job and the AMA and Kaiser HMO there might not be so many disabled people due to Medical/Surgical HARM and ABUSE!! see www.tossurgerynightmare dot com and on you tube look up "Bobbie Jenke"
Submitted by jimmy at: December 5, 2013
i have 7 compression fractures in my thoracic spine, cervical spinal stenosis, spondylosis, foraminal narrowing, facet desease, multiple herniated disc in cervical and lumbar, scoliosis, bone spurs,DDD, etc. etc. etc. i cannnot stand in one spot for 5 minutes and cant stay on my feet for maybe and hour. It is uncomfortabe sitting after 15mins and i have to constantly lay down. and there is not a company in this country that would hire me. would you. i been denied for eight yrs now living off my mom. she and my kids have been robbed. THESE PEOPLE (ATTORNIES,ETC.) ARE IN VIOLATION OF THE RICO ACT. Mine stem from a workers comp accident at 28yrs old, i just turned 50 and the accident has advanced my condition 30yrs before its time. Dr. Kriss of Versailes Ky. has created 15 pages of fraud from one 15min visit and gave a 100% definitive diagnosis change dates and doctors as to the true facts in black and white and now i have lost my medical after 20yrs. Hope they all rot in hell.
Submitted by spidy at: November 22, 2013
people need all the help they can get right now.There are not enough jobs. Even with a college education good luck.
Submitted by Marykay at: October 16, 2013
I'm in TN and every other ad is about lawyers wanting to get you on SS Disability. One said we have a judge from Memphis and he know how to get you on it. Another said it is all we do here is get people on SS Disability. I know several people who shouldn't get it. I'm glad you done the show and there has not been one ad since the show aired. Not one. I am so happy someone finely got on them. Thank you 60 Minutes
Submitted by dawson54 at: October 16, 2013
What's even more baffling -- and enraging -- about this one-sided, unsourced story is that Steve Kroft did the "reporting." (He read the text that the producers had prepared for him.) Usually Kroft is pitted as a liberal muckraker. Here, he shows himself capable of playing lapdog for Tom Coburn and the No Entitlements loonies who are now cackling over the government shutdown they engineered. To rely on anecdotes from half-a-dozen non-players in the world of Social Security Disability is simply beyond belief. I can only guess what Mike Wallace -- with whom I once talked about depression as a crippling illness -- would have done to get this story reported fairly and with proper sources. I am a former reporter and editor, having spent 11 years with Time-Life back when their news service was still in business (and known for its rock-solid accuracy). I am also a victim of three major diseases -- Crohn's Disease, COPD, and Sjogren's Syndrome -- and meet "the listing" for all three. Even so, it took me 19 months to have my SSDI application approved on appeal. During this time I was forbidden from working at all. Had I done so, it would have been grounds for immediate rejection. I have seen three doctors hired by the SSA to help make disability determinations, and I have collected enough information from my own doctors to fill a two-inch notebook. All so that I can pay for medications and barely avoid bankruptcy. Would I like to go back to the near-six figure job I had as editor of a publishing company? You bet. My hope is that someone will pick up on both the errors of fact in the rash of recent anti-SSDI stories and the reason such stories are suddenly hot news. Only by revealing the malignant misinformation in these stories as flowing from the same wellspring as the birthed movement, the Tea Party funders, and the lunatic fringe currently owned and operated by Fox News will the honest truth shine strong.
Submitted by sheloregon at: October 13, 2013
Please spend some time looking at all those folk disallowed from SSI on first application. My brother, who had 3 heart attacks and a liver disease, was rejected. We got the letter of rejection the day after he died.
Submitted by dmcrane at: October 12, 2013
You're heading is designed to make all those who hate anyone on Social Security say "I told you they were all scamming". This was a program that showed how the parties administering the program are corrupted by money and lawyers and judges "on the take". Whether there was any guilt in the parties who were receiving the benefits, whether they were deserving or not, was not the point. Your headline shames the recipients, when the story was about the criminal administrators.
Submitted by jake at: October 12, 2013
Yes there are those who collect in spite of not being disabled take congress they take their pay regardless of not doing the peoples business the fact that they take money or in kind services from lobbists is a much bigger fraud than SSDI ever was
Submitted by CityguyUSA at: October 12, 2013
Let's make it really interesting and let's attribute those that have legitimate health issues related to choices that the US government has chosen to ignore like properly funding oversight and regulatory agencies which in the end allow corporate greed to dump toxic materials into our water systems and force people to eat unlabelled genetically modified foods infiltrating our food systems or laws that give immunity to frakers for any damage they cause to our water systems, etc. How many people are dying of diseases that use to be minimal and have now become major problems costing our health systems and the population. How much is the government responsible for in it's failure to regulate? And let's also talk about a livable benefit rather than trying to skip medications in order to eat. This is the Bermuda Triangle of Wall St and the government where the people are swallowed up by a system that could care less.
Submitted by JoeBob at: October 12, 2013
Coburn's release of a report by the Conn law firm, hahaha a bunch of cons and a Republican, now there's a match.
Submitted by doc at: October 12, 2013
Lawyers people who make money on other peoples misfotune. Overpaid pariahs
Submitted by GlendaKP at: October 12, 2013
"Ailments like fibromyalgia with subjective, difficult-to-prove symptoms were easy ways to get disabilities checks..." I would love for any of these people live in the body of someone with fibromyalgia and then say it's an "easy" way to get a disability check.
Submitted by lindablue at: October 12, 2013
I saw the piece on 60 minutes, it was clear a lawyer,doctor, and judge were doing what their politicans won't making sure the people in a depressed area were able to survive. Shame on their politicans for not making sure the people have work.
Submitted by marge at: October 12, 2013
I have been an ardent fan of 60 Minutes as long as I can remember. But I hope clarification will be made promptly about this program.
Submitted by WSB at: October 12, 2013
Surprised that no one covered the disability insurance companies that require that you apply for federal disability in order to receive at the benefits that you had been paying for for years. Of course they reduce your benefit payment based on what you get from the government receive. These companies have "affiliates" that help with the process.
Submitted by Andy at: October 12, 2013
It seems like the Washington public relations behemoth is gearing up to discredit the social security disability program like they did years ago by finding one welfare mother that drove a Cadillac. 60 Minutes should be ashamed to do this kind of thing without some statistics to back it up. They know that there are always (at least) two sides to every story.
Submitted by Tigermac at: October 12, 2013
The republican party especially the traitors in Congress and the Tea Party who have shutdown the government, want to pass chained CPI which would cut the benefits for Social Security beneficiaries. The corporate funded republican Congress and Tea Party want to privatize Social Security so that the corporations could make money as caretakers of Social Security. This would have the same effect as when the Insurance companies had taken control of the medical industry, the insurance companies had the say, overriding Doctors as to whether a patient could have life saving surgery or not, or whether a patient could have the medication he/she needed or not. The same would be true if the corporations had control of Social Security, decisions would be made with the shareholders in mind not the recipient of Social Security.
Submitted by spider at: October 12, 2013
There is more corruption in one congressman than there is in the whole Social Security benefits for disabled. How many unneeded C17's, Abrahms tanks, aircraft carriers, or F35's do we really need? I would rather somebody in this country eats, on a whole $1200 a month, than all of us pay billions for waste on weapons systems.
Submitted by Debbie at: October 12, 2013
It is very hard to get disability, even when a doctor proves you are disabled. My daughter-in-law's mother was dieing of cancer and was turned down. Her doctor actually called Social Security and chewed them out. She got it just a couple months before she died. I fought 2 years for mine and in the end they decided I have physical proof in xrays and other tests that I was disabled. But I had to get a lawyer. I wish I could work. I worked for 30 years. Some probably do game the system, tell me one system that isn't gamed, but to make it any harder would be a crime. Reform the judges, get people who understand medical conditions to make the decisions in the first place. Some become homeless waiting to get Social Security Disability. I know of someone who did, who had seizures and mental health problems and hepititis. Eventually he got it, with a lawyer. He has a home now.
Submitted by Buckwheat at: October 12, 2013
This is how the "Welfare Queen" myth got started. Someone digs out one our two people who are abusing a system and hold them up as an example for all the millions who really need the benefit. Besides, my tax dollars are being wasted in far fore atrocious ways that I can't do anything about. I'd rather see it go to someone who could use it. No disability recipient gets rich off of those checks, they probably can barely live on them. Let them have them. Concentrate all this energy and attention on the politicians who cause the conditions that cause people to have to do whatever they can just to keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. Why don't they do a story on how those people are living. They will probably find that they are barely making it. Let them have the checks.
Submitted by Doris Wilson at: October 12, 2013
People who unable to work being turned down for benefits is more common than people abusing the system. I've seen a woman on oxygen for severe breathing problems turned down and told she could go to work in a cotton mill, as absurd as that was. Fibromyalgia is a real illness. If you know someone in constant pain from it, you know it can be disabling. The reality is that the vast majority of these people granted disability are unable to work at the manual labor jobs available to them. This is just the latest march of greed in our country and another phase of the war against the poor, when we once opposed poverty.
Submitted by patb at: October 11, 2013
I'm not exactly surprised disability is rising. 1) the BabyBoomers are aging, the Highest boomer class (1957 birth year) is now 56. Half the boomers are seniors, and the entire boomer cohort are AARP eligible. 2) The economy is still a shambles, so the increased strain, workload etc is no doubt causing a lot of people with marginal health problems to magnify problems. People with mild arthritis have it flair up if they are working a job that makes them stand on a cement floor. 3) the medical establishment recognizes softer illnesses now that lack any diagnostic tests, just excusion diagnosis.
Submitted by Unpaid Congressional Staffer at: October 11, 2013
Correction: The SSDI report was signed and released by four Senators Coburn, Levin, McCain and Carper. This post lists just one. The report had strong bipartisan support.
Submitted by skyhawkmaintainer at: October 10, 2013
The fraud, waste, corruption and abuse comes from Incongruous (aka Congress).

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