Teddy Newsome says he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in years after hurting his neck and back while working for more than 30 years as an equipment operator at surface coal mines.
Now the Pike County man has another worry.
Newsome, 58, received notice this week from the Social Security Administration (SSA) that it has tossed out some of the medical evidence supporting a 2010 ruling that he was disabled.
As a result, the agency plans to have an administrative law judge decide whether Newsome is entitled to continue receiving a monthly disability check of $1,926.
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Newsome said he’ll try to find work if he loses, but mining jobs have plummeted in the area. He has considerable pain and thinks going back to work could hurt his health.
“I’d probably die doing it, or be paralyzed,” he said.
Newsome is among almost 2,000 people, many of them in Eastern Kentucky, that SSA plans to put through a process of re-determining their eligibility for disability benefits.
They were all represented by disgraced attorney Eric C. Conn as they sought disability benefits.
Conn was once one of the most successful disability attorneys in the country, but pleaded guilty in a fraud case in March 2017, admitting he filled out false forms with evidence of clients’ disabilities, paid health professionals to sign them, and bribed a judge who rubber-stamped the claims.
He is serving 12 years in prison.
The letter to Newsome said Social Security must re-determine eligibility for disability benefits when there is reason to believe a claim involved fraud. Conn allegedly included fraudulent information in Newsome’s file from a doctor.
However, Newsome also saw other doctors, and can submit evidence from them in trying to retain benefits. He was lining up records earlier this week.
The move by SSA to review the eligibility of nearly 2,000 former Conn clients has caused some dread in Eastern Kentucky. It could cost hundreds of people benefits in a place where those payments are significant in the economy.
SSA reviewed the eligibility of nearly 1,800 former Conn clients beginning in 2015 because of suspected fraud.
Of those, 53 percent kept their benefits during the initial re-determination hearings, according to the office of U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents Eastern and Southern Kentucky.
More could win back benefits during appeals, but the numbers show that many of the latest batch of 1,965 cases identified by SSA could lose benefits as well.
“People realize how deadly serious and devastating this can be,” said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who represented former Conn clients in the first round of hearings.
The Appalachian Research and Defense Fund of Kentucky, known as AppalReD, helped coordinated an effort to find free lawyers for Conn’s former clients in the first round of SSA re-determination hearings.
A total of 135 attorneys from more than 25 states volunteered and took 587 clients through that effort, while lawyers with the non-profit represented another 200 people, said Mary Going, an official with AppalReD.
Some lawyers also took clients independently.
In the first round of reviews, Social Security notified hundreds of Conn’s former clients at once and said it was cutting off benefits.
At least two people committed suicide after getting the notices. Social Security restored benefits after Rogers interceded with the agency.
This time, Social Security will keep benefits in place until deciding if people remain eligible, and it plans to stagger the release of notices.
“We’re gearing our system back up again” to find lawyers for Conn’s former clients who will face hearings in the coming months, Going said. She stressed that people can get free legal help.
Some people may have defaulted on their right to seek continued benefits in the first round of cases because they didn’t know they could get free help. Others may have defaulted because they knew their claim was not legitimate.
Pillersdorf said some of Conn’s clients did not have legitimate claims. But many never met Conn and had false evidence in their files they did not know about, he said.
Pillersdorf and other lawyers involved in the cases believe the majority of Conn’s former clients were disabled when they were awarded benefits.
The rate of former Conn clients who have kept benefits during the reviews so far exceeds the approval rate for administrative law judges generally, said Evan Smith, an attorney with the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center.
Pillersdorf and Joseph R. Lane, who works with him, met earlier this week with Going and Smith to discuss the potential to try to block SSA from going forward with a new wave of 2,000 hearings.
“We’re gonna put together some sort of challenge to prevent the SSA from putting another 2,000 people through these unfair hearings,” Pillersdorf said.
A challenge to the first round of hearings is pending in a federal appeals court, but it did not stop the agency from going ahead with the reviews.