By James Pavisian, Attorney
Recently, media outlets like CBS’s 60 Minutes and NPR’s This American Life aired “reports” on the state of the Social Security disability program. According to these reports, the Social Security disability program is the new welfare. Senator Tom Coburn, a leading advocate in the fight to dismantle the Social Security safety net, led the charge in the 60 Minutes piece that would have viewers believe lawyers and undeserving claimants are pilfering millions of dollars from the unassuming taxpayer.
The truth is that Senator Tom Coburn, and those that hold his position, are simply misinformed. Both NPR and CBS claimed that the increase in the number of people on disability is proof positive of a growing epidemic. However, neither outlet cared enough of the problem to interview a disability expert who would have pointed out that the Social Security’s Office of Chief Actuary foresaw the level of increase two decades ago. Some of the factors the Chief Actuary highlighted in his report were the growth in the US population, the baby-boom generation entering its high-disability years and the surge of women who entered the workplace in the 1970s and 1980s that consequently became insured for disability.
What about fraud? Glenn Sklar, the Deputy Commissioner of Disability Adjudication and Review at the Social Security Administration answered that question for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform on June 27, 2013. Mr. Sklar noted that the number of all the favorable decisions issues the true wrong rate—percentage of awards that might have been improper—was “less than 10 percent.” The President of the National Council of Disability Determination Directors testified before the House Ways and Means Committee in March 2013 that 97% of initial determinations were accurate over the last three years. Finally, the Government Accountability Office from improper payments of Social Security benefits of just .6% and Michael Astrue, the former Social Security Commissioner, and Carolyn W. Colvin, the current Acting Social Security Commissioner, testified that 99% of Social Security disability payments are accurate.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation, an organization that promotes policies that will improve the economic and social well-being, published a report ranking the United States disability program as among the most restrictive and least generous disability benefit program in the developed world behind only South Korea. Despite what 60 Minutes and NPR report, the number of applicants approved for disability benefits has decreased every year since the mid nineties. In 2012, approximately one-third of the people that applied for disability benefits were approved. That approval rate is far from the outrageous epidemic NPR and 60 Minutes make the program out to be.
Those working the in trenches, if honest, will agree the program needs common sense fixes. The House of Representatives has been holding meetings with key figures in the disability program to help identify some of those changes. However, it is disconcerting to see the media produce “reports” on the disability program that espouse positions and “facts” about the disability program that are based on debunked statistics and on the assumptions of a United States Senator that has attacked spending on veteran’s benefits and tornado relief for the people in his own state.
The truth is, honest reporting about this issue will not sell papers and will not bring viewers to the television set. In our society, ratings are king and nothing brings higher ratings than sensational journalism that feeds on fear and misinformation.