PRESTONSBURG — The federal government will restore Social Security disability payments to hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky whose checks were suspended pending a review of their eligibility, easing fears of economic ruin for many families.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents the region, announced the decision Thursday.
Rogers had met with several Social Security officials Wednesday and asked them to lift the agency's earlier decision to suspend benefits, citing the hardship it would cause.
Suspending benefits could have left hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky with little or no income for a year or more. That had caused fears about people not being able to afford food or medicine or losing their homes. The loss of benefits might even have played a role in three suicides.
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During his meeting with Social Security officials, Rogers said, "I was rather blunt that this is a matter of life and death."
He said the acting administrator of the Social Security Administration, Carolyn Colvin, called him Thursday to confirm that the agency would restore disability payments to people who received notice last month about suspended payments.
About 900 people got the notices. Most live in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.
Rogers said he didn't know exactly when checks would go out, but he thought it would be within days.
The agency said in a statement Thursday that even though benefits had been restored, the 900 people will have to prove they deserve to keep them.
"Social Security remains fully committed to its responsibility to ensure that the public funds entrusted to the agency are properly expended, and takes every measure to fight waste, fraud and abuse in Social Security programs," the statement said.
Rogers said benefits would remain in place until the people whose cases are being reviewed get a hearing before a Social Security judge.
"I'm elated," Rogers said. He had been worried about the potential for more suicides, he said. "This is an enormous relief to me. I'm overjoyed for the recipients who will now be able to afford medicine and food."
Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who is helping represent people in the issue, said Rogers' successful request to restore benefits to people had eased "countless miseries," ranking as an accomplishment worthy of Carl D. Perkins.
The Democrat from Knott County represented Eastern Kentucky in the U.S. House for more than 30 years, using his post to push for improved education and programs to help poor people.
"He acted like Carl D. Perkins today," Pillersdorf said of Rogers. "In my view, that's the highest compliment you can give to a Kentucky politician."
The suspensions at issue affected former clients of Floyd County lawyer Eric C. Conn.
The Social Security Administration said in late May that it was stopping payments to 900 people immediately while redetermining whether they are truly eligible for benefits.
As the reason for the suspensions, the agency cited suspicion that the cases Conn submitted for the recipients included fraudulent information from four doctors.
A spokeswoman for the SSA said the agency has to 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.
The agency notified 600 other people that their eligibility also is under review, but did not suspend their payments right away because they receive a different form of disability benefit.
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 a Social Security judge who rubber-stamped benefits for his clients with little scrutiny.
Conn received $22.7 million in fees from 2001 to 2013 from Social Security to represent claimants.
One thing that has rankled many former Conn clients is that there is no evidence they knew about or took part in alleged fraud, according to a lawsuit Pillersdorf and other attorneys filed for the people who have lost benefits.
In addition, many had gone through a review since winning benefits and had been recertified.
Rogers said Social Security should quickly root out any fraud involved in cases handled by Conn.
However, most of the people whose cases are being reviewed are innocent of any fraud, and they should not be penalized during the review, Rogers said.
"It's the old American idea that you're innocent until proven guilty," Rogers said.
Conn's attorney, Kent Wicker, has said Conn represented his clients with integrity and did a good job, winning benefits for thousands.
Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joseph Lambert, who helped represent Conn at a hearing Thursday, said Conn apologizes to his former clients for the actions by Social Security.
It was the agency, not Conn, that victimized people by improperly cutting off their legitimate benefits, Lambert said.
"Mr. Conn's done nothing wrong," Lambert said.
The federal government closed an investigation of Conn without bringing any criminal charges, Wicker has said.
At a hearing Thursday in Prestonsburg, however, two former employees of Conn said they had recently been contacted by federal investigators.
One, Melinda Martin Hicks, said someone from the Office of the Inspector General had contacted her. That was apparently a reference to the Social Security Administration's investigative unit.
Hicks said she expects to receive an order to appear before a grand jury.
Hicks and Jamie Slone, another former Conn employee, did not disclose the subject of the investigation.
Wicker said that to his knowledge, there is no current criminal investigation of Conn.
The hearing Thursday was in a lawsuit alleging that Conn defrauded the 900 former clients and committed legal malpractice. The lawsuit was filed for them by Pillersdorf and Pikeville attorney Noah Friend.
Circuit Judge Johnny Ray Harris approved their request to keep in place an order barring Conn from disposing of assets or destroying evidence.
Hicks and Slone testified that Conn had thousands of pages of records destroyed after he was first contacted by federal investigators in 2011, having some shredded and others burned in a pile behind his office.
The fires created so much smoke that a neighbor complained, Hicks said.
The former employees also said Conn dealt in large amounts of cash and talked of going to Cuba to avoid jail if necessary.
However, Wicker said that Conn did not hide assets or flee despite scrutiny from Senate investigators and others dating back years.
The allegation that Conn could dispose of assets is baseless, Wicker said in a motion arguing that the injunction was not proper or necessary.