Feature

Dying, Going Broke: A Report
on the Fate of the Disabled

Published August 05, 2021 | 5 min read

More than 109,000 Americans died while fighting to get federal disability benefits between 2008 and 2019 fiscal years, according to a new study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

And about 50,000 applicants went bankrupt between 2014 and 2019, the report found. 

“Applicants who appeal a benefits denial can potentially wait years to receive a final decision, during which time an applicant’s health or financial situation could deteriorate,” wrote the GAO in the report, which involved 13 months of cross-referencing SSA records with death certificates and bankruptcy filings, according to Elizabeth Curda, a director at GAO.

The study, released on the GAO website Thursday, looked at what happened to about nine million people who pursued appeals during the years in question. Most applicants waited more than a year for a final decision, though that number ballooned to a median of two years and three months in 2015, the GAO reported.

And things got worse during the latter years under review as the death rate went up 38 percent between 2011 and 2018, according to the report.

Nationwide 67 percent of those who apply are denied, one of the highest rates among industrialized countries, and the average monthly payout among SSDI recipients is $1,124.

“It’s absolutely unconscionable that thousands of Americans suffer and die every year waiting for a final decision to get the modest Social Security benefits they need to survive,” said Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in a statement following the release of the report.

Phillip Herring (right) and his brother Morris.
Phillip Herring (right) and his brother Morris.

The report underscores troubling problems with a system that applicants say is often biased against them, with arduous paperwork requirements, rulings that ignore or never consider medical evidence and judges who reject as many as 90 percent of appeals.

“Research suggests the majority of denials may be incorrect, and applicants struggling to manage their disabilities say such denials can amount to a ‘death sentence,’” said U.S. district court judge Carlton Reeves in a ruling in May that awarded benefits to disabled Mississippi truck driver Carl Boatner, 55.

Boatner suffered from heart disease, liver disease, diabetes and chronic lung disease — but got turned down for benefits four times during his six-year battle with SSA.

“These denials have been painful,” Reeves wrote. “One caused Boatner to walk out of his house, put a gun to his head, and threaten to kill himself.”

The majority of those who get denied apply through the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which involves people who worked for at least a year then couldn’t continue due to a disabling injury or illness. Others get benefits through the Supplemental Security Income program, which helps the blind, elderly and others with little or no income.

SSDI isn’t charity — it’s a federal insurance program, funded by payroll tax contributions, with benefits based on how much was contributed during the working years of a claimant.

But industry insiders say it’s now under attack by the Trump Administration, which is seeking to cut $2.6 billion from disability payouts over the next decade by doing more frequent reviews of those who are currently getting benefits.

Other plans for cuts include eliminating a person’s work history, age, education and ability to speak English as factors in whether they can find a job.

“[The] administration, despite all the rhetoric, doesn’t believe in the program, wants to make it harder for people and is changing the rules to make it harder,” says Nancy Altman, president of the advocacy group Social Security Works. “That’s just on top of everything else. It’s just like, ‘How much can you bear?’ And these are benefits that people have earned.”

Among those who died was Phillip Herring, an X-ray installer from Tupelo, Mississippi,who  loved his job but suffered a pulmonary embolism involving more than 100 small blood clots in his lungs.

He also had type 1 diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver — though he didn’t drink — and a MRSA infection that nearly killed him.

 Surgeons eventually had to amputate his lower left leg. By 2015 Herring could barely stand or sit comfortably for more than a few minutes.

 Over the next four years, he and his sister Vonda Peters fought with the Social Security Administration, which twice denied his request without explanation, despite his doctors submitting hundreds of pages of medical records in support of his claim, she said.

 Peters said they never had him examined by an independent consultant — and he never got the chance to argue his case before a judge. .

 A final decision came in June 2019 — denying Herring for a third time. It arrived in the mail a day after his funeral.

 “I said, ‘What the f—?’” Peters recalled. “And I don’t speak like that. It was an expression of how disgusted I was.”

 She remains baffled as to why her brother kept getting rejected.

 “If he had gotten to go before a judge or a doctor, if he’d gone that far in the process, I don’t know how he could have been denied.”

 –Additional reporting by Aidan O’Keeffe

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