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60 Minutes Story on Disability Should Be Called the Fraud

“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.”

If the 60 Minutes story by Steve Croft which aired on CBS on October 6, 2013, had mirrored the title of the report, there would not have been many complaints.  The 161 page report in question was issued by the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs in conjunction with a hearing held on October 7, 2012, by Senator Tom Coburn.

The allegations in the report show a perfect storm of collusion in the Huntington, W. Virginia Office of Disability and Adjudication Review (ODAR) between one lawyer, Eric Conn, two Social Security Administration (SSA) judges, David Daugherty and Charlie Andrus, and multiple doctors with checkered credentials, to obtain benefits for Eric Conn’s clients.  It also involved other SSA officials who, while not actual parties to the scheme, turned a blind eye for more than a decade to very questionable behavior, including clear violations of the agency’s rules.   Multiple complaints from agency personnel were also ignored or dismissed without investigation starting in the year 2000.

Among the glaring omissions of the 60 Minutes report was the backdrop which allowed this abuse to blossom.  Ironically, and tragically, it was an attempt on the part of the SSA to reduce the time claimants were forced to wait to have their cases heard by Administrative Law Judges (ALJs).  By 2005 processing times had reached their highest levels and it was not uncommon for claimants to wait several years to appear before an ALJ for a hearing.

In 2007 the SSA announced a plan to reduce the backlog of cases awaiting a hearing with an ALJ.  This plan focused on increasing the productivity of ALJs and set standards, some would say quotas, for the number of cases each judge was expected to adjudicate in a year.

The culture that developed in the Huntington, W. Virginia ODAR which allowed Judge Daughtery’s alleged misconduct to continue unchecked, was a direct result of this quest for increased productivity.  As a judge that was known to produce a high number of decisions, in some cases twice or three times the amount of other ALJs, he was held to a different standard than his peers. Due to the astronomical number of decisions he produced the Huntington ODAR became the second most productive office in the country.

It now seems as though Judge Daughtery’s stellar performance was not due to his self-proclaimed “workaholic” behavior, but rather a result of the fact that he granted essentially all of the appeals of Eric Conn’s office without a hearing.  At points, Eric Conn’s office handled 40% of the cases pending a hearing in the Huntington office.  Through his ability to circumvent the scheduling rules, Judge Daughtery ensured that he was assigned the majority of Eric Conn’s cases.  The Senate report details the procedures Judge Daughtery and Eric Conn allegedly developed to contact one another so that Conn could produce the evidence Judge Daughtery felt was needed to approve the claim.

How could such abuse be overlooked for so long?  That is now the subject of the Congressional inquiry.  From the Senate report is seems the answer is as simple as it is unsurprising.  By turning a blind eye the administrators of the Huntington office, including the Chief Administrative Judge, Charlie Andrus, were lauded for their increased productivity within the SSA, given monetary bonuses and achieved increased stature.  In 2009, Judge Andrus was promoted to Assistant Regional Chief Administrative Law Judge.

What did Judge Daugherty receive for his tireless service to the SSA?  According to the Senate report the allegation is that he received payoffs from Eric Conn’s law firm.  Eric Conn in turn became one of the most highly paid attorney’s practicing in this area of law.

Although the 60 Minutes story left the distinct impression, if not outright accusation, that the entire Social Security Disability program is rife with corruption, it seems clear that the Senate report was focused on a small group of individuals and a bizarre set of circumstances that seems highly unlikely to be duplicated.

Where do claimants applying for Social Security Disability benefits stand amongst this fallout?  Where they always have, at the bottom.  According to the most recent data from SSA the average processing time for a hearing is still 355 days¹.    More startling is the fact that according to a SSA report issued in 2011, the overall award rate for individuals seeking disability benefits was 34.8% in 2010 down from 56.0% in 1999². It would have been refreshing if Steve Croft had mentioned these facts.

 

Footnote 1 – Average Wait Time Until Hearing Held Report for the Month of August 2013 on SSA.gov.

Footnote 2 – Outcomes of Applications for Disability Benefits: Annual Statistical Report on the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, 2011.

 

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