Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Drama vs. Moral Perspective - Response to This American Life's Report on SSA Disability

On March 23, 2013,   This American Life broadcast a show about the disabled. It was an unfortunate endeavor, full of errors and did little to examine the program. The focus was more sensationalism and less responsible reporting. We offered the following response to the reporter and producer. Comments to This American Life may be sent to

Our comments are included below. We received a response thanking us for taking the time to write in and expressing sorrow that we were disappointed with the show.

Dear Ms. Joffe-Walt and Mr. Glass, 

As a long time listener and admirer of This American Life, I was extremely disappointed with your recent show, Trends with Benefits.  Having worked for SSA 23 years and then starting a solo practice as a claimant representative for disability clients for an additional 9 years, I have been on both sides of the program. I participated in President Clinton's Welfare reform, by contributing in policy groups. As a claimant representative, I have represented clients in 35 states at initial levels and through Administrate Law Judge hearings and Appeals council reviews. Like the overwhelming numbers of fellow representatives, I have never “sued” the government and found your treatment a sensational approach, from the outset title to the, hey wanna know a secret? introduction.  Equally puzzling that Ms. Chana Joffe-Walt spent 6 months “researching” the problem without mentioning such basics as the payroll contributions workers make (i.e., pay) for SSDI  disability insurance should they encounter a disability in addition to the SSI program. Since Congress holds hearings on disability, virtually monthly, real research would have disclosed the whole program is under constant scrutiny. People get cancer, develop Alzheimer’s, break ankles, and yes rupture multiple discs in their backs after toiling 30 years in construction jobs. Hardly the common back pain you inferred. I won’t even go into Ms. Joffe-Walt’s   query about what jobs remain for people “without hands.”

Rather than a balanced review, which is long overdue and would have been the high ground, the show focused on outliers -a small town in remote area, or a singing representatives or advocates who make millions of dollars. Advocate fees by the way are overwhelmingly paid for by the disabled individual - not “by the government” – and are limited to 25 percent of back due benefits with a limit of $6000, only if they win the case.  Nor was the fact that representatives pay “user fees” that is the right to have SSA send their fees directly if they obtain benefits for claimants. Most representatives do not sing jingles or wear cowboy hats. In addition, advocates are encouraged to include pro bono work. In my small firm, during the last 10 years I have maintained at least 10  percent pro bono case load because  disability includes everyone from chronic schizophrenics without housing  to CEOs who  paralyzed from a stroke, spend down their savings, lose their homes and have a great deal of difficulty finding help when they apply for benefits. In fact, the majority of people who lose homes do so after working and becoming disabled, thus unable to pay their mortgage and then ending up on the street with health declining. 

Fraud in SSA (one of the largest programs in the world) has always been comparatively low and has been studied excessively for the last 30 plus years. Additionally while SSA does make over payments, they also underpaid millions of dollars of benefits in 2012 alone .  This is due in part to the fact that the agency has had a diminished budget, is losing employees, and faced with increased workloads. How is that for a lead story? These are only a few of the observations I would offer.

Media Matters within a day of your broadcast came out with additional accurate, reality based factual retorts to the glossy statistic speed sheets that you both gasped about on the air.  Now you have backtracked on your Planet Monday site with multiple corrections. Then, on March 29, 2013, Ms. Joffe-Walt back tracked on NPR and leaned into advocacy and away from her sensationalism. A less than altruistic shift, but a start. Since the show prides itself on the accuracy of your reporting and in this show the charming love of numbers; perhaps you can spend another 6 months and contribute to reporting real answers to valid questions.

A hard look at the program could clearly improve efforts to get people back to work. However, most individuals who are eventually allowed and draw their 13 K a year are so ill they either die or cling to the meager existence left.  Of course, some disabled individuals could return to work, but that takes programs and the willingness to provide real rehabilitation with support as the beneficiary tries to return to work. That also means money from taxpayers and more programs. Having done this for 32 years, I can safely say most who come to me have done everything they can to keep the dignity that comes from working. 

Your question about what we do with this economy and those who are disabled is an important one. Too important for a skewed perspective composed in large part of  blatant  and erroneous exceptions (mom keeps kid home to “pull” 700 dollars, doctor who “makes” the disability decision )- omitting the DDSs – state agency examiners who make decisions and the extremely complex medical  and vocational criteria required to review claims and appeals, the Administrative Law Judges who make decisions, SSA’s oversight of attorneys and non-attorneys who are required to complete comprehensive testing and continuing education if they wish to practice and review direct pay etc. etc. Reporting on the disabled may increase your ratings at the expense of the most vulnerable amongst us. Indeed, WSJ and FOX diatribes about the “dramatic” growth of free loaders – inaccurate publicity, have decreased allowance rates in the last two years. One would hope the quality of TAL could accurately and substantively engage the reality that in hard times the weakest are easy to attack. They should be more than fodder for a sensational scoop.  This vast and complicated program should have the public interest. But without working for facts, you are just another drive by op- ed. The disabled and those involved in their lives deserve more. FDR’s vision for protecting the disabled remains as does the integrity of his advocacy echoed by Hubert Humphrey. Mr. Humphrey stated that the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped. If This American Life wishes to report on the disabled, I respectfully suggest you keep such moral perspective and an accurate grasp of real facts in mind when you break your next dramatic story. 

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