On Sunday, October 6th, 2013, 60 Minutes, the popular magazine format news broadcast, aired a segment entitled “Disability, USA” in which correspondent Steve Kroft issued a perspective on the growth in the size of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. The report characterized that the program will be “the first government benefits program to run out of money.” The segment was posed as an investigation into the recent surge in eligible beneficiaries, an increase of 20% in the last six years, and whether the SSDI program was “a secret welfare system, with its own disability industrial complex, a system ravaged by waste and fraud.” The segment was quickly denounced as factually inaccurate, agenda driven, and one sided by disability organizations and news outlets.
At the center of the story was Senator Tom Coburn, the minority ranking member of the United States Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Government Affairs. This committee held a hearing on October 7th, 2013 at which they reviewed the case of an attorney, and firm, based in eastern Kentucky, and an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who made decisions in Social Security claims in West Virginia, of operating a scheme to approve cases with questionable medical evidence. Senator Coburn asserted that a two year investigation revealed that the ALJ would assign the cases from the attorney directly to him, and that the attorney in question had doctors examine clients at his office complex based on the instructions of the ALJ, and other doctors signed forms that had been completed by members of the attorney’s staff.
Senator Coburn’s stance in the 60 Minutes segment is that there are many undeserving SSDI recipients and this is because of a failure of the Social Security Administration (SSA) to properly oversee its programs. The segment indicates SSA’s explanation for the growth is the aging baby boomer population and the residual effects of an economic downturn. The segment goes on to imply that the representative community is also responsible for growth in the recipient population, pointing to the success of representatives who advertise heavily directly to potential clients via day time television and billboards. Kroft interviews two Administrative Law Judges who bemoan that in 1971 fewer than 20% of claimants were represented and today more than 80% of claimants have professional representation.
In a segment on 60 Minutes Overtime, a program on the 60 Minutes website that expounds on articles aired in their regular broadcast, Kroft explained that it was his intent to say to viewers, “Here’s the situation, what are we going to do?” As a whole, the segment seemed mostly as a precursor to the issues that were addressed in the Senate hearing. The angle of the segment, and Senate hearing, was on beneficiaries who may be in receipt of benefits, but be undeserving, make the system wasteful and unsustainable, with a focus on the situation in West Virginia as evidence to support this premise.
The program was quickly denounced in the media and by disability organizations as misleading and factually inaccurate. By painting the entire program in ominous hues while focusing on a single organization that is alleged to have behaved unethically, and potentially criminally, distracts from the real systems issues facing SSA as its workforce shrinks and the baby boomer population reaches its most disability prone age bracket. 60 Minutes glossed over SSA’s argument that demographics are the primary reason for the swell in SSDI beneficiaries, an argument that is supported by objective, actuarial data. The segment failed to mention that the vast majority of individuals who apply for Social Security Disability benefits are denied, and approval rates have fallen steadily since the economy went into recession in 2007. The report was noticeably one sided, as 60 Minutes failed to interview anyone from the Social Security Administration in their official capacity, despite the fact that National Public Radio received similar criticism for airing a similarly misleading segment on Social Security Disability benefits in March.
The Advocator Group does not condone this type of agenda driven journalism about disability programs and benefit recipients. We feel that factually inaccurate reports like this 60 Minutes segment adversely impact the disabled individuals these programs are in place to serve. Reports like this result in widespread inaccuracies regarding the Social Security Disability program and other disability insurance programs that provide a vital safety net to millions of disabled individuals both nationally and abroad. We continue to work with various groups, organizations, and media outlets to ensure that fair, balanced, valuable information about Social Security benefits is shared and that the public has an opportunity to be educated about pertinent and factual matters regarding the disability program.
As always, The Advocator Group will continue to monitor the situation and provide updates as they become available. Please reach out to us at any time if you have questions or are seeking additional information at (877) 261-1947.