Advocates defend SSDI program amid massive fraud indictment

Statue of Liberty and New York City Skyline
New York

On January 7, the Manhattan district attorney’s office unsealed an indictment, charging 106 retired New York City police officers and firefighters with defrauding the Social Security Disability Insurance Program.

The scheme, believed to be the largest fraud ever perpetrated against the SSDI system, has raised concerns from disability advocates that it will lead to increased misconceptions about the program.

“The Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force condemns any misuse of the Social Security disability programs,” the CCD, the nation’s largest consortium of disability advocacy groups, said in a statement. “Any individual who seeks to abuse vital programs like Social Security does so at the expense of the millions of disabled workers for whom benefits provide essential economic security – and must be brought to justice.

“At the same time, we must take care not to paint Social Security’s disability programs with the brush of the few who aim to defraud it, without putting them in the context of the millions of individuals who receive benefits appropriately and for whom Social Security is a vital lifeline.”

In order to qualify for SSDI benefits, the beneficiaries allegedly faked illnesses in their psychiatric exams. According to the New York Times, they were “coached on how to fail memory tests, feign panic attacks and, if they had worked during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, to talk about their fear of airplanes and entering skyscrapers.”

Officials believe the scheme may include as many as 1,000 people dating back to 1988, costing taxpayers as much as $400 million dollars.

While urging federal prosecutors to continue to prosecute disability fraud, advocates reject the contention that fraud is prevalent in SSDI, which provides benefits, averaging $1,130 per month, to about 8 million people unable to work because of their disabilities.

Although the number of people on SSDI has spiked since the 2008 recession, a recent study shows that three demographic factors accounted for 94 percent of the increase: population growth, the aging of the baby boomers, and the entry of more women into the workforce during the 1970s and 80s.

“It takes a lot more than just being out of work to qualify for SSDI.,” CCD chairperson Katy Neas wrote in the Hill on January 16. “Workers must have paid into the Social Security system for long enough to be covered in case of disability. Additionally, an applicant must provide extensive medical evidence of a severe disability, illness or injury.

“The disability standard is so strict that fewer than four in ten applicants are approved for disability benefits, even after all stages of appeal.”