About 1,200 people in Kentucky face a review of whether they may keep federal disability payments because the decision to award them benefits was based on suspected fraudulent information, according to the Social Security Administration.
The agency confirmed Wednesday that it sent letters last week to about 1,500 people informing them of the need to re-determine their eligibility.
Of those 1,500 beneficiaries, 80 percent live in Kentucky, said LaVenia J. LaVelle, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration.
Most of those people live in Eastern Kentucky. Five percent to 6 percent live in West Virginia, and the rest live elsewhere, LaVelle said.
The notices caused a shock wave in Eastern Kentucky because the agency suspended payments for many people while their continued eligibility was being decided, creating hardship for families with few other resources.
"You couldn't pick a more vulnerable group," said Ned Pillersdorf, a lawyer in Prestonsburg. "We're gonna have cancer patients who will be homeless."
There are two programs at issue in the mass re-determination process.
One is Social Security Disability Insurance, which covers people who have worked and paid into the system before becoming disabled. The other is Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which is for people who are disabled — including children — and have little or no work history, income or resources.
The 1,500 cases under review include 900 beneficiaries and family members covered under Social Security Disability Insurance, LaVelle said. Those are the people who had their benefits suspended.
The agency has to follow a separate, more lengthy process to suspend SSI benefits, so those beneficiaries who are being reviewed will keep getting checks "at this time," LaVelle told the newspaper.
The Social Security Administration expects to work through the re-determination cases in a timely way, LaVelle said, but she did not give a specific timetable.
Attorneys trying to help people facing reviews said it could take months to resolve cases.
All the people whose cases are being reviewed were represented by Floyd County lawyer Eric C. Conn in their effort to receive disability benefits.
Social Security investigators have determined there is reason to suspect that fraud was involved in some cases in which Conn submitted evidence from four doctors to justify a finding of disability, the agency said.
The doctors were Frederic Huffnagle, who died in 2010; David Herr; Bradley Adkins; and Srinivas Ammisetty.
A U.S. Senate committee investigation released in 2013 said that Conn's firm provided medical reports that doctors signed without doing thorough examinations in many cases, and that Conn improperly colluded with a Social Security judge who rubber-stamped benefits for his clients with little or no scrutiny.
Conn received $22.7 million from 2001 to 2013 from the Social Security Administration, or SSA, to represent claimants, the Senate report said.
At a hearing on the Senate report, Herr asserted his right not to testify, while Adkins and Ammisetty denied any intentional wrongdoing.
The SSA must make a new determination of a person's eligibility for disability benefits when there is reason to suspect that fraud was involved in the earlier application, LaVelle said.
The agency has to disregard evidence from the four doctors in that review. Without that information, the agency decided at the initial stage of the re-determination that the 1,500 people who got letters were not eligible for benefits, LaVelle said.
The people may submit additional information to try to convince a Social Security judge that they deserve continued benefits.
An attorney representing Conn, J. Kent Wicker, said former clients of Conn would attest that the evaluations by doctors Conn used were more thorough than those of SSA doctors.
Wicker said a criminal investigation of Conn was closed after the federal government declined to file charges.
"It appears that the government investigated Mr. Conn for years without being able to find any fraud, and now they feel like they have to take some kind of action," Wicker said.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Somerset who represents Eastern Kentucky, issued a statement Wednesday saying he was deeply concerned about SSA's decision "to suspend critical disability payments to hundreds of Eastern Kentuckians."
His office had received dozens of calls about the issue, Rogers said.
The statement said staff members in Rogers' office were working to help people navigate the SSA re-determination process. He encouraged anyone who received a suspension letter to call his office at 1-800-632-8588.
Several people who said they had received suspension letters posted worried comments on social media sites about being unable to pay their bills.
Pillersdorf said 10 local attorneys and about 200 people affected by the move to suspend disability benefits met Wednesday evening in Prestonsburg to discuss the issue.
Stories people told about the effect of losing their benefits, such as not being able to afford medication, were heartbreaking, Pillersdorf said.
"A lot of crying," he said. "A lot of anger."
Pillersdorf said the decision was made to have him file a lawsuit seeking to block SSA from stopping people's disability benefits during the review process.
He said it's likely some people who are being reviewed did not have valid claims to begin with, and there is no interest in helping them keep benefits obtained through fraud. But many had legitimate claims, he said.
"People who are deserving should not lose their benefits," Pillersdorf said