Judge: Changes to disability will impact fair rulings

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by ANDY PIERROTTI / KVUE News and photojournalist DEREK RASOR

Bio | Email | Follow: @AndyP_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on February 20, 2014 at 7:33 PM

Updated Thursday, Feb 20 at 7:40 PM

For more than 20 years, Thomas Wilkins dedicated himself to his country. After two tours in Vietnam and other over-seas deployments, his wife, Linda, says he suffered long-term medical problems.  

"He had shoulder problems, arm problems [and] back problems," Linda said.

Years later, doctors diagnosed Thomas with pancreatic cancer caused by contact with Agent Orange in the war.

In May of 2000, the Department of Veteran Affairs approved his benefits, identifying him as "100 percent unemployable."

After years working as an air plane mechanic, Thomas applied for disability with Social Security, but the agency disagreed.

Linda says a doctor hired by Social Security, who never met him, said his pain was all in his head.

"He was totally devastated, totally humiliated," she said.

For nearly eight years, Wilkins appealed Social Security’s decision. About three years ago, Thomas died waiting. He never saw a dime. The cause on his death certificate: cancer and Agent Orange.

"In the end, he couldn’t do anything but sit in a chair," said Linda.

According to records reviewed by the KVUE Defenders, the likelihood of winning an appeal for benefits often depends on the administrative law judge who gets your case.

The Defenders found some judges in Texas approving cases as high as 64 percent of the time, while others approve as few as 24, 16 and 9 percent of their cases. The national average is nearly 50 percent.

Mary Ellen Felps is an attorney with more than 40 years in practicing social security law.

The KVUE Defenders asked her what her thoughts on the low percentages.

"They are responding to pressure that’s political," said Felps.

Felps said she believes pressure comes from top social security administrators and a conservative congress.

More Americans than ever before are getting disability benefits. The government paid out more than $136 billion in benefits in 2012.

Some estimate the government will run out of cash in two years. So, it's cracking down on fraud, including a recent case of 1,000 New York first responders accused of bilking $400 million  after faking disabilities.

That’s not all. Social Security also rewrote the job descriptions of its judges, allowing the agency to crack down on judges who approve too many disability benefit claims.

"Making this type of drastic change is just wrong," said Randall Frye, an administrative law judge for social security and the president of its union.

Speaking with the Defenders from Charlotte, N.C., Frye said he believes the new policies will impair their ability to rule on benefits fairly.

"From my perspective, and I think from most judges' perspective, that’s never good for the American people," said Frye.

Frye said he also believes the hearing process needs more transparency. While hearings involve billions of tax dollars each year, none of them are open to the public.

Linda Wilkins has appealed her husband's case to federal court, which is where it's stuck today.

Social Security tells the Defenders the job descriptions of its judges were outdated and last updated 17 years ago.

Mark Hinkle, a spokesperson for Social Security, wrote in an email that the “process took several years to complete and required the agency to work closely with the Office of Personnel Management.”

Hinkle said that those changes “appropriately preserve their qualified decisional independence in conformity with the Administrative Procedure Act and the Social Security Act. “

Those job descriptions were finalized in December 2013.
 

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