By John Rosenberg
By now, virtually everyone in Eastern Kentucky and many around the state are familiar with the Eric Conn clients and how in late May the Social Security Administration sent payment suspension notices to about 900 disability recipients and about 500 who received Supplemental Security Income.
The notices stated that the benefits would be suspended because "there was reason to believe fraud was involved in certain cases including evidence" from four named doctors used by Conn. The notices simply showed up in mailboxes and informed recipients they would receive no more payments until they could prove anew from other medical records that they were disabled as of the date of the initial determination, some years in the past.
Although payments would continue until there was a final resolution of the SSI cases (being a program for the disabled poor), the 900 SSD recipients were going to simply stop getting payments. There was no prior opportunity to contest the suspensions, a basic due-process right.
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The SSD recipients were given only 10 days to respond with additional medical evidence, which would be considered, but more likely they would be forced to appear at a hearing before an administrative law judge. This news was disastrous to the SSD recipients, many of whom depend on the monthly payments to meet basic necessities of life.
Within a few days, at least two suicides were linked to notices.
Fortunately, after a class-action lawsuit challenged SSA's action, and following the suicides, U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers convinced Social Security to reverse course. Now the payments have been restored and recipients will have an opportunity to contest SSA's actions.
By sending all these notices at once, SSA created an additional enormous problem. There are not enough available lawyers and qualified representatives to represent the recipients at the hearings to determine whether their benefits will continue.
There are no provisions for paying attorneys who represent recipients at these hearings. The majority of the clients cannot afford to hire an attorney.
These are complex, time-consuming cases. Appalachian Research and Defense Fund lawyers and those of other legal services can take some of these cases, but they already are overburdened and turning down potential clients.
Relatively few members of the private bar handle Social Security cases. So, we are hopeful members of the Kentucky Bar Association will be willing to be trained and to volunteer to represent recipients without charge.
KBA, at its annual convention in Lexington this week, together with Appalred, will make a strong effort to encourage lawyers to help.
We learned at a Floyd County hearing last week that Conn had a "four-day burn" in which his staff destroyed the records of folks he had represented.
Furthermore, hospitals which might have some of the old medical records are charging as much as $1 a page to make copies. The records are voluminous, and many recipients cannot afford to pay for them.
With Rogers' urging, the time for obtaining new evidence has been extended to 30 days, helpful but perhaps still not enough — so, almost an insurmountable task for a layperson.
Conn received his fees from his "representation" of these recipients when they were first found disabled. He has let it be known he does not intend to represent them in further proceedings.
Hopefully, the law enforcement and bar disciplinary processes will catch up with him very soon.
Lawyers can contact Mary Going at (606) 886-8136, Ext. 1315.