Posted on Oct 06, 2013

CBS Program Presents Uninformed Piece on Disability

The show, "60 Minutes" aired a jaded and uninformed piece of the Social Security system on October 6, 2013. Social Security provides a blanket of economic security for individuals that are disabled. The majority of individuals that eventually receive disability benefits are denied twice and must appear in front of a judge to determine their eligibility for the program. In Nebraska, disability claimants usually wait 18 months from application until their hearing date. During this year and a half, my clients struggle financially; some of them receive utility shut off notices and/or eviction notices. I can not imagine someone putting themselves through this financial hell without having a true belief that they cannot work. And, if they are awarded disability, the average monthly payment is $1,129.20, barely above the poverty line. However, 60 Minutes leads the TV viewer to believe that it is easy to get on disability and a lot of people are on disability that are not disabled.

Setting the Record Straight

  • 60 Minutes interviewed a former worker from a national Social Security disability law firm. This lawyer remarked that some disability awards are based on a disease known as fibromyalgia, which has no known "objective testing". This point view ignores two inconvenient truths for the lawyer. First, the American College of Rheumatology has set guidelines in 1990 and 2010 to follow for diagnosing fibromyalgia. This is not a fake disease. Second, Social Security issued a new ruling to require disability awards based on fibromyalgia to follow the American College of Rheumatology guidelines.
  •  Sen. Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, incorrectly reported in his interview that the Social Security statute requires a disability applicant prove that they are unable to perform any job in the economy to be disabled. I support the goal of having integrity in the Social Security disability system and only granting benefits to those that are disabled. In theory, Sen. Coburn's comment seems practical but he lacks an understanding of aspects of Social Security law. The reality is there are individuals out there that are in the grey zone between disability and working with no restrictions.If an individual requires significant accommodations to work, Social Security will find them disabled. Otherwise, these individuals would be at the complete mercy of the job market and finding an understanding employer. Further, Coburn's comment ignores the grid rules, a special set of disability that apply to disability applicants 50 years of age and older. Analyzing just one quote from Sen. Coburn with misstatements of law, does he seem like an authority on the topic?
  •  The 60 Minutes piece also reported that a Social Security attorney hired doctors to examine claimants in his office. It is perfectly acceptable to have a doctor examine your client to determine what their work limitations are. The ideal doctor report regarding work restrictions is from the treating physician. However, some treating physicians simply do not want to get involved with writing a disability report, irrespective of the merits of the person's claim for disability. Also, 60 Minutes did not report that Social Security hires their own doctors to do a paper review of the disability claimant's medical records, not even an examination and then the doctor opines on the claimant's work restrictions. The majority of these claims are denied. In defense of this Social Security attorney, at least he hired doctors that examined his clients.
  •  60 Minutes also reported that their has been a surge in disability awards because of unemployment and the aging population, the Baby Boomers. This increase in disability awards has been predicted by the SSA actuaries since the 1990s because of the demographics of the Baby Boomers and another segment of the population the show failed to mention. The show failed to mention that another reason for an increase in disability awards is more women entering the work force in the 1980s has led to more potential workers who could be disabled.
  • Sen. Coburn staffers reviewed hundreds of disability awards for quality control. 60 Minutes reported that the staffers then concluded that 25% of the disability awards should have never been awarded and 20% were highly questionable. We do not know the qualifications of the staffers. These staffers were not at these hearings. The staffers could not have reviewed all of the medical evidence in the file. My average SSA file for one of my clients is over 400 pages. It is also highly unlikely that the judge that awards disability document every single piece of evidence in the file if it's going to be an award. The judge sat with the person for 30 to 60 minutes to listen to their disability story. They are usually in the best position to determine their disability status. I am not sure what made these staffers experts on the topic of Social Security disability.
Sean D. Cuddigan
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SSA and VA Disability Attorney in Omaha, Nebraska