Authorities are investigating the deaths of three people in Eastern Kentucky who might have committed suicide after receiving letters telling them their federal disability benefits were being suspended, according to a lawyer involved in the issue.
Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf said a state police detective told him about the cases late Tuesday.
The detective said police think the three deaths were "related to the suspension letters," Pillersdorf said. He declined to release the detective's name.
About 900 former clients of Floyd County lawyer Eric C. Conn recently received notices from the Social Security Administration that their payments had been suspended because of suspicion that the cases Conn submitted for them included fraudulent information from four doctors.
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Most of the people who received suspension letters live in Eastern Kentucky or West Virginia.
Many of the people have no other income, so the loss of their benefits has caused tremendous concern in the area.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern and southern Kentucky, said he told officials at the Social Security Administration about the suspected suicides during a meeting Wednesday, making the point that the agency was dealing literally with a life-and-death situation.
"You could tell it made an impact," Rogers said.
Rogers said he asked Social Security officials to restore benefits to people while going through the process of re-determining their eligibility.
It was improper for the agency to cut payments to people before giving them a chance to make the case for continued benefits, Rogers said.
"It's not the American way to treat people as convicted before giving them a chance to be heard," he said.
Rogers said agency officials committed to giving him an answer soon on whether the commissioner would lift the benefit suspensions.
Martin County Sheriff John Kirk said a 43-year-old woman who shot and killed herself in the county Tuesday had gotten a letter saying her disability benefits had been suspended.
Kirk was the first officer to respond to a call about the shooting.
The woman's husband told Kirk she had gotten a notice about her disability check being cut off, Kirk said.
"Said she'd been under a lot of stress since she got the letter," Kirk said. "She was very depressed over that."
Efforts to reach the woman's husband were not successful.
The woman's mother said her daughter had been "aggravated" about losing her benefits, but the mother said she did not think that was the reason the daughter killed herself.
Kirk said the woman's husband told him she was supposed to have gone to Conn's office earlier Tuesday to pick up records in her case. Kirk said he didn't know if she actually had done that.
A U.S. Senate inquiry found that Conn had records on former clients shredded after he was contacted by Social Security investigators in 2011.
Pillersdorf said the death of a Floyd County man also was related to his loss of disability benefits.
Pillersdorf represented the man and his wife in a lawsuit alleging she contracted black-lung diseases because of dust from a coal-processing facility near their home.
The man, who was 41, shot himself Monday. He was pronounced dead after being taken to Pikeville Medical Center.
Pike County Coroner Russell Roberts said he talked with family members of the man who said he had been depressed before he received the letter notifying him he would lose his disability check, and the news made it worse.
A family member said that "when he got that letter he got more depressed," staying in bed all day the day before his death, Russell said.
Pillersdorf said that he had spoken with the man's wife and that she blamed the shooting on the despair and financial pressure her husband felt.
The man's widow declined to speak with the Herald-Leader.
The newspaper does not generally identify people who commit suicide.
No information was available on a third death in the region that might be related to the suspension letters.
Trooper Steven Mounts, spokesman for the Pikeville state police post, said detectives were conducting several death investigations, but he could not confirm that any of the deaths were related to a loss of disability benefits.
State police did not release the names of the people whose deaths are under investigation.
The Social Security Administration is going through a process to re-determine eligibility for disability benefits on about 1,500 former clients of Conn.
The agency suspended payments to 900 people. The other 600 receive a different form of disability benefit called Supplemental Security Income, and the agency did not stop those payments immediately.
A U.S. Senate investigation released in 2013 included allegations that Conn's firm submitted medical evidence from doctors who did not properly examine some claimants and that Conn improperly colluded with David B. Daugherty, a Social Security judge who rubber-stamped benefits for Conn's clients with little scrutiny.
A spokeswoman for the SSA said the agency had to make a new determination of a person's eligibility for disability benefits when there was reason to believe fraud was involved in the earlier application.
However, there is no evidence Conn's clients knew about or took part in alleged fraud, according to a lawsuit Pillersdorf and other attorneys filed for the people who have lost benefits.
That lawsuit seeks an injunction that would block Social Security from cutting off people's checks while reviewing the eligibility.
Pillersdorf said Wednesday that people who lost benefits should take heart because the case is moving quickly, with a telephone conference scheduled Friday on the motion.
One worry is that it could take a year or more for the agency to make a decision on whether people will have their benefits restored, if a judge does not grant an injunction and officials turn down Rogers' request for immediate restoration.
However, Rogers said the agency was looking at ways to expedite the re-determinations with more judges and video-conference hearings.
"They obviously are chagrined at this mess they find themselves in," Rogers said.
Rogers said Social Security officials agreed to give people 30 days to submit additional evidence of their disability, instead of the 10 days they were given at first.
People who can't meet that deadline still will be able to submit information later to a Social Security judge.
Conn's attorney has said he represented clients honestly and well, and agreed that the government should not have cut off their benefits.