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Disabled Americans May Be Prejudiced by CBS News Report

On October 6, 2013, the CBS News program, Sixty Minutes, broadcast an approximately thirteen minute segment which exemplified irresponsible journalism. The segment featured a scandal in the disability system allegedly perpetrated by one attorney, and one Social Security disability judge located in the border area of West Virginia and Kentucky. The broadcast appeared intent upon leading viewers to believe every applicant for Social Security disability is a scammer and all lawyers are scoundrels. The obvious omissions in the broadcast were glaring as were factual inaccuracies and liberties taken.

However, in 2009 CBS News broadcast an accurate two part series on the Social Security disability system. At that time CBS reported the following.

Each year, millions of people who are disabled from an accident or disease turn to the Federal government for Social Security disability payments-a benefit that every worker who is declared disabled is eligible to receive. It's a 51-year-old government insurance program-a lifeline of sorts- that every worker pays for through that line-item on their pay stub, known as FICA. But a two-month CBS News investigation reveals that safety net may not be there when you need it most.

Social Security disability insurance provides vital assistance to disabled workers and their families. When presenting facts and figures, it is vital for a journalist, or news organization to present accurate information and to put it in proper context. Failure to do so is purposely misleading and perpetrates yet another abuse.

The 2009 CBS News report honestly stated the following.

Over the last two years, 16,000 people fighting for disability benefits died while awaiting a decision.

The 2009 broadcast also aired the following statement from a Social Security Administration employee.

We're failing the disabled on a very large scale.

Glaringly egregious was the journalistic decision not to broadcast an interview with any of the millions of truly disabled citizens who have paid into the system, and justifiably obtained benefits. CBS did not have to go far for the interviews. In fact, the CBS archives contain a 2009 two part program with interviews which documented the excruciating difficulty eligible and disabled claimants have obtaining Social Security disability benefits. However, that footage might confuse the viewers who CBS would rather lead to believe all Social Security disability claimants are scammer and slackers.

The recent Sixty Minutes broadcast appeared to encourage misconceptions about attorneys who represent people applying for Social Security disability benefits. For example, while the broadcast appeared to paint attorneys as scoundrels who rob, cheat, and plunder the government, the broadcast did not mention the fact an attorney may not receive a fee for representing a Social Security disability claimant unless a Social Security disability Administrative Law Judge first approves the fee. Therefore, by extension the CBS broadcast could be construed to have indicted all Social Security Administration Administrative Law Judges who approve attorney fees. Furthermore, if the Social Security disability application and award process were a quick and easy way for claimants to obtain money, there would be no need for claimants to obtain an attorney or to give up a portion of their award as an attorney fee.

The CBS News broadcast did not mention attorney fees in Social Security disability claims are set by statute, or government regulation. Even if a claimant is awarded "current benefits," an attorney may not receive a fee for representation unless a claimant is awarded retroactive, or past due benefits. Attorneys do not decide whether a claim is awarded. An administrative law judge appointed by the government makes that decision. Congress regulates the fee an attorney may receive for handling a claim for Social Security disability benefits. All attorneys are paid the same amount for representation in a Social Security disability claim, i.e., 25% of the past due benefits awarded up to a ceiling of $6,000.00, whichever is LESS. In order for an attorney to be paid $6,000.00, the claimant must be awarded at least $24,000.00, in retroactive benefits.

Retroactive benefits are calculated by multiplying the number of months for which a claimant is eligible for benefits by the amount of money per month the claimant is eligible to receive. The amount for which a claimant is eligible depends on the amount the claimant has paid into the system via the payroll (FICA) tax deduction from the former worker's pay check. A worker who never collected a "significant" wage, will receive far less per month, than a high paid worker who paid into the system. Even if a Social Security Administrative Law Judge decides a claimant has been disabled for many years prior to the judge deciding the claim, the claimant's retroactive benefit may not be calculated more than 17 months prior to the date of application. Additionally, the Social Security Administration has a five (5) month grace period in which benefits are not calculated, which means the calculation of retroactive benefits begins on month six following the date of application, if the claimant is found disabled 17 months prior to application.

If an attorney works years on a Social Security disability claim, and if the claimant is not awarded retroactive benefits, the attorney will NOT receive a fee. If on the other hand a claimant were awarded only a $1,000.00 in retroactive benefits, the attorney would receive a $250 fee for the entire period of representation. The government withholds the attorney's fee from the retroactive benefits awarded the claimant and pays the attorney via direct deposit. Attorneys who are paid fees for Social Security disability claims are not plundering the U.S. Treasury. The attorney fee is earned. The fee is paid from the claimant's award after the claimant is found by a Social Security Administration Administrative Law Judge eligible for benefits, and the claimant paid in to the system via payroll taxes. After carrying a claim for what may be two years or more, an attorney must PAY THE GOVERNMENT for the privilege of being paid a fee for representing a claimant. In 2016, the attorney pays the government $91.00 for every $6000.00 fee received. In fact, the SSA withholds 6.3% or $91.00 (whichever is less), from every fee it sends to an attorney. The amount of money the government receives from attorneys who are awarded fees each year was not broadcast by CBS News.

Broadcast of any scandal by any news organization boosts ratings and sells advertising. When an irresponsible journalist, or news organization fails to check facts, properly disseminate information, or present all sides of the story, "journalism" perpetuates ignorance and prejudices the innocent majority. It is unfortunate when news organizations omit critical facts, especially when their omissions are related to programs as vital to the tax paying American citizen as Social Security Disability Insurance, which provides benefits to millions of eligible Americans with severe disabilities, and their families, pursuant to Social Security regulation. The discerning public cannot seriously consider information dispensed with as little integrity as the scandal the news organization purports to cover.