This week, U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers’ office announced the Social Security Administration is planning a second round of redeterminations for former clients of Eric C. Conn. While the first round initially targeted approximately 1,500 individuals, with more than half of them losing their benefits, this new round will target another 2,000 people.
The SSA’s thinking is that, because Conn admitted in a plea agreement to submitting fake, boilerplate medical evidence and bribing an administrative law judge to approve his cases, his clients may not be truly disabled and deserving of government benefits.
Many people seem to think that disability fraud is rampant, and the SSA is dedicated to rooting it out in cases like Conn’s where he has admitted to winning his cases fraudulently. However, disability fraud is relatively rare — according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, disability cases are on the rise not because of fraud, but because of an aging population — and if disability fraud is so rampant, why are mortality rates for those on disability still three to six times higher than average?
Let’s give the SSA the benefit of the doubt here. Even if this were a rampant problem, their methodology, however, has been flawed since the beginning. In May 2015, their original plan was to cut off all benefits for the 1,500 former Conn clients, and allow them to be won back at redetermination hearings. Only after multiple suicides and intervention from Rogers’ office did they admit that assuming these people were guilty until proven innocent was a bad idea.
Nonetheless, as attorneys like Ned Pillersdorf will tell you, the hearings themselves are still rigged. The notion that Conn won their benefits fraudulently, and that the medical evidence submitted in their cases is a sham, is a notion that cannot be argued or even discussed in these hearings. They must, instead, produce medical evidence that supports their claim of disability — not today, but from the time when they first won their benefits. Even having years of medical history between then and now proving that their disabilities have been an ongoing problem is not enough. Nevermind if Conn’s doctors were the only ones they saw back then. Nevermind if Conn’s doctors actually submitted correct evidence in their cases. That evidence is thrown out before the case even begins.
The evidence of fraud is not presented for viewing or challenging. Already, one federal judge has called this process unconstitutional, and said that it affords these people less rights than Al Qaeda terrorists receive; when terrorists go on trial, at least they are allowed to contest the evidence against them.
Other federal judges have sided with the SSA, and numerous other cases from around the state from this first round of redeterminations have been put on hold while the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the matter. These are U.S. District Court judges who admit that their rulings should wait until the litigation has been settled in a higher court.
Does the SSA agree that it might be best to wait and see if they should be allowed to continue this process? Apparently not, with another 2,000 new cases set to be opened.
The bottom line is this: The SSA may just be right that one or more of Conn’s clients were not deserving of disability benefits, but their efforts to stamp out potential fraud have been excessive. In the process of hunting out the incredibly rare cases of fraud, they have steamrolled over hundreds of innocent victims who have been unable to work for years and who rely on their disability benefits to survive. The agency created to be a social safety net and protect our nation’s injured people has exhibited unconscionable behavior that has resulted in suicides, homelessness and hunger.
They have tried to find a needle in the hay (that may not even be in there) by burning down the entire haystack. Now, they are looking to burn down another, even larger one. It is unethical.