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A Rebuttal to 60 Minutes’ Disability USA Segment

On October 6, 2013, journalist Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes’ reported on a Social Security Disability Insurance system “ravaged by waste and fraud”.  Backed by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), the segment called the Disability Insurance program “a scheme, a scam, fraud”. Attorneys who represent claimants before the Social Security Administration were accused of exploiting a vulnerable system. The National Organization of Social Security Claimant’s Representative (NOSSCR), of which I am a proud sustaining member, has already issued an official statement and response to the segment. While I could write for hours about the inaccuracies in the segment, I will focus on the two most blatant misrepresentations made: (1) Social Security Disability is a welfare program being exploited by an ever increasing number of people; and (2) Being awarded disability is a near certainty.

(1) Social Security Disability is a welfare program being exploited by an ever increasing number of people.

I will make this unequivocal: Social Security Disability Insurance is not welfare. As the name implies, it is a government-mandated long term disability insurance program. When you work, the federal government takes FICA (Federal Insurance Contribution Act) out of every check. A portion of that FICA tax purchases long term disability insurance in the event that you become disabled before your full retirement age. It is not welfare. It is not “the dole”. It is insurance that you pay for when you work.

The segment claims that disability has increased by approximately 20% over the past six years to nearly 12 million Americans. The actual breakdown is approximately 8.8 million disabled and another 2 millions spouses and children. The real sleight of hand is that the simple increase in the population, along with a corresponding aging of that population (think Baby Boomers), more than accounts for any increase in the disability rolls. This is not a program that is being used at a higher rate, it is a program that is being used at a lower rate by a growing population.

(2) Being awarded disability benefits is a near certainty.

The national average for winning a disability hearing is 46%. This means that 54% of people who apply for disability are denied at the hearing stage. One can hardly say that a less than 50% chance of being accepted is a “virtual certainty”. As noted above, this is not a lottery or welfare program. This is an insurance program for which all working Americans pay premiums. Think of it like your BlueCross/BlueShield or AFLAC insurance policies. If people were paying their premiums and being denied 54% of all benefits from their private insurance there would be a national outcry. Insurance executives would be hauled before Congress to explain why they were collecting premiums, but not paying benefits. Administrative Law Judge Marilyn Zahm of the Buffalo office was quoted as saying that if the American people understood the scam half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits. This is a frightening opinion given that it comes from a judge presiding over disability determinations, but should be taken with a grain of salt seeing as how she only awards benefits to 38% of claimants that appear before her at hearing – again, hardly a sure thing.

There is not doubt that any system providing valuable benefits to over 10 million people will have some fraud. As a fierce advocate for the rights of the disabled, I can not stress enough my desire to see all forms of fraud identified and addressed. Fraudulent applications take valuable time and resources away from Americans who truly need it. However, it should be noted that the system is already doing an excellent job of identifying and denying fraudulent and undeserving claims. Any attempt to curtail benefits or increase red-tape would only end up hurting those who need the help most. As the disability determination system stands today, it is performing efficiently and effectively. There is no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

If you have applied for Social Security Disability and been denied, you have the right to appeal that determination. At Michles & Booth, Antonio Bruni and Brian Carter represent individuals who have been denied benefits across the south-east and across the Florida panhandle. Contact us today for a free consultation.

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