Politics & Policy

Dubiously Disabled

Our compassion is being stolen, one parking space, one wheelchair, and one check at a time.

It happens all the time. I head out to the nearest mall to work through my weekly honey-do list. After spending five minutes securing a parking spot, I walk to my destination. As I pass the handicapped parking spaces located a hop and a skip from the entrance — the spaces reserved for people in wheelchairs, or really old people with walkers, or other genuinely handicapped people — I notice a car pull into one. It’s one of those Seinfeld moments, and I turn into George Costanza. Almost.

The first thing I do is stop and take a look at the license plate. And then I wait. And it happens like clockwork. Perfectly healthy human beings with handicapped-parking decals spring out of their cars and happily stroll right by me.

Of course they’re happy — they get the best parking spaces, and suffer no consequences.

#ad#What happens next separates me from George Costanza: I don’t say anything. I don’t challenge the miscreant pretending to be handicapped who steals a space from people who are. And that’s part of the problem: People like me don’t confront people like them. Our government doesn’t put up much of a fight either, as you’ll learn shortly. Indeed, it actually gives them incentives for this behavior. And the grifters who pretend to be disabled get away with stealing our collective compassion one parking space at a time.

And one wheelchair at a time.

With regularity, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, airport employees witness people who falsely claim to be handicapped when they arrive at the airport. Having successfully cut to the front of the long security lines, these parasites jump out of their chairs the moment they’re through the screening process and race to their gates, bags in tow. Airport security sardonically calls these occurrences “airport miracles,” because the body scanners seem to possess mysterious healing powers.

How big is the problem? One airport investigated the matter and concluded that at least 15 percent of wheelchair requests are phonies designed to game the system. Some think that estimate is low.

We can thank the 1986 Air Carrier Access Act for requiring airlines to provide free wheelchair service to anyone who wants it. The legislation was carelessly written, so that there’s no documentation required to get the service.

Our compassion isn’t just being stolen one wheelchair and one parking space at a time. It’s being stolen one check at a time. Perhaps millions at a time, if we had the courage to challenge the explosion of disability checks being sent to Americans who are not handicapped.

How bad is it? Enrollment in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program has hit an all-time high of 8.9 million, up from 455,000 in 1960 and 7.4 million when President Obama took office in January 2009. Since 2009, the number of people on disability has increased more than the number of people working.

All this has happened as medical advances have allowed more of us to stay on the job, and laws have been passed banning discrimination against the handicapped in workplaces.

But it turns out that once people get on the disability train, they rarely get off. In 2011, 650,000 people left the program, but 36 percent of those left because they had no choice — they died. Another 52 percent left because they moved to other programs. Only 6 percent returned to work, and only 3.6 percent went back to work because their medical condition had improved.

How did this happen? For starters, we allowed it. It has become socially acceptable in some parts of America to not work when you actually could, and instead to collect a check from the taxpayers. And in some parts of America, this is utterly commonplace. In Hale County, Ala., according to a recent NPR series, nearly one in four working-age adults is on disability. And on the day their checks arrive, NPR noted, “banks stay open late, Main Street fills up with cars, and anybody looking to unload an old TV or armchair has a yard sale.”

Things have got to be pretty bad if NPR is doing a series on the issue.

NPR’s Chana Joffe-Walt talked to a retired judge in Hale Country, Sonny Ryan, who described a conversation he had had with a man who appeared to be healthy, but who collected disability.

“Just out of curiosity, what is your disability?” the judge asked.

“I have high blood pressure,” the man said.

“So do I,” the judge said. “What else?”

“I have diabetes.”

“So do I.”

And that summarizes the problem.

In 1984, Congress changed the definition of the word disability. The old definition, it decided, was too narrow; it included pretty much only things that could kill you. Things that were easy to test for, like cancer and heart disease. The new law was more vague, with harder-to-diagnose problems like back pain and depression added to the list.

When Congress creates a vague law with big dollars attached, it doesn’t take long for a crafty lawyer to seize the opportunity. And seize it Charles Binder did. When he started working in the disability field in 1979, Binder represented fewer than 50 disability clients. Last year, his firm — Binder & Binder — represented more than 30,000 people.

#page#You may know the firm, because you can’t get through 15 minutes of daytime TV without seeing its ads. Binder is the guy in a cowboy hat grinning from ear to ear who makes this promise to viewers: “We’ll deal with the government. You have enough to worry about.”

Binder isn’t just advertising his services in those commercials; he’s selling a government program many people didn’t know existed. Now they do. And Binder’s firm is the beneficiary. It raked in $68.7 million in fees last year, the biggest player in the disability industrial complex.

That’s why he’s smiling so broadly in those ads. Other law firms are following his lead. In 2010, a $1.4 billion slice of the disability-awards pie was paid as fees to disability lawyers by the Social Security Administration, up from $425 million in 2001.

#ad#Who says there aren’t pockets of growth in our stalled economy?

The NPR report didn’t end there. Binder and his clients, it turns out, have advantages when they get before a federal appeals judge. “You might imagine a courtroom where on one side there’s the claimant and on the other side there’s a government attorney who is saying, ‘We need to protect the public interest and your client is not sufficiently deserving,’” MIT economist David Autor told NPR. “Actually, it doesn’t work like that. There is no government lawyer on the other side of the room.”

You heard that right. There is no lawyer representing the taxpayers, despite the fact that the average claim costs us over $300,000. The number is that high because in addition to the annual $13,000 people get when they win their appeals, they soon qualify for Medicare. Which means taxpayers are not only paying people not to work for the rest of their lives, we’re picking up the tab for their health care, too.

Regrettably, the Social Security Administration didn’t design disability hearings to be adversarial, according to the NPR report. Instead, judges are there to represent the government, while they are simultaneously charged with giving a fair and impartial hearing to the claimants. Judge Randy Frye, a North Carolina administrative-law judge, told NPR he often finds himself glancing to the other side of the courtroom hoping to hear a challenge from the government. But what he sees is an empty chair. From the sound of things, Frye is a judge doing his best in a bad situation.

Some judges are less scrupulous. Take Judge David Daugherty — please. Until he was forced into retirement two years ago, Daugherty processed more cases than all but three other judges in America. But he didn’t seem interested in defending taxpayers. According to the 2011 Wall Street Journal report that led the Social Security Administration to place him on leave, Daugherty decided 1,284 cases in 2010, and awarded benefits in all but four. For the first six months of 2011, he approved payments in every one of his 729 decisions. How does that compare with the other 1,500 judges administering the program? The chance of winning in their courtrooms is 60 percent.

“Some of these judges act like it’s their own damn money we’re giving away,” Daugherty told a fellow judge in Huntington, W.Va., according to the Journal.

He’s right. It isn’t the judge’s money. And it isn’t the lawyer’s money, either. It’s our money.

Regrettably, we now have a system in place that advantages one side — trial lawyers — over another — taxpayers — and provides claimants enough wiggle room to allow them to scam the system with little effort. They simply have to hire a lawyer — and wait. For people with poor job prospects and little training, it might just be enough to induce them to get on the dole for the rest of their lives.

What are the costs to taxpayers? SSDI hit a record $124 billion in benefits in 2010. And according to a CBO report in 2011, Medicare costs for SSDI recipients added up to $80 billion. And we taxpayers don’t lawyer up on these disability appeals?

So what can we do about this perfect storm of factors leading America down the path to becoming Disability Nation? Here’s an idea: Identify all the unemployed recent college graduates across the country, and have them follow around all the people collecting disability, and see how many are doing things like fishing. Or hunting. Or doing off-the-books work. And pay the graduates a bounty for each scammer they out.

In addition to making some extra money and saving taxpayers even more, those young graduates will learn just how corrosive a well-intentioned federal program can become. They’ll learn that people respond to incentives, and if you make not working pay about as much as working, and throw in lifetime medical benefits, you’ll get some bad outcomes. They’ll learn that because of those incentives — and the work of trial lawyers — many able-bodied citizens who should be working and contributing to our society are instead stealing from it.

But don’t hold your breath. Because the experience just might turn a lot of recent graduates fresh out of their liberal indoctrination camps — or as Dennis Prager likes to call them, liberal seminaries — into conservatives.

— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network, which syndicates Bill Bennett, Mike Gallagher, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, and Hugh Hewitt. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.

Lee Habeeb — Lee Habeeb is an American talk-radio executive and producer. He has written columns for USA Today and the Washington Examiner, and is a columnist for Townhall.com and National Review.

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