How to cover the rise in disability claims? A local perspective makes a big difference

Jessie Van Berkel covers the city of St. Paul for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. But last month, she traveled north to the small towns of rural Minnesota to report on Social Security Disability Insurance, the federal assistance program that, as the Star Tribune put it, has become a “lifeline” for a sharply rising number of Americans over recent decades. In Ohio, Dayton Daily News reporter Chris Stewart found his subjects closer to home for a March special report on the “long road to benefits” for the more than one million Americans—including 40,000 Ohioans— “caught in the federal government’s biggest traffic jam: the line of people appealing denied Social Security disability claims.” Both reporters produced strong, sensitive work featuring local perspectives—voices that are frequently overshadowed or missing in national coverage of disability benefits, where the emphasis is often on budget concerns and fears of fraud.

The local reporters didn’t ignore those concerns, but they struck an alternative balance, showing the difference that a little legwork and a shift in perspective can make. “Claims of waste and abuse are rampant,” Stewart wrote. “So are the tales of real suffering.”

In Minnesota, Van Berkel found many of those tales concentrated in rural northern counties where timber and mining injuries are plentiful and desk jobs are scarce. She was prompted by her editor’s curiosity about which areas in the state had the most applicants for Social Security disability benefits. The answer turned out to be towns like Walker, population 941, located in Cass County, where about one out of 12 residents receive disability benefits—more than twice the state average. Van Berkel described for readers the demographics driving what has been a growing dependence on SSDI nationwide and included a section on the “uncertainty” of trust fund’s financial future. But, she says, she was “more interested in the policy implications for the average person.”

That means people like 65-year-old Rita Ray of Walker, who years ago “‘destroyed’ a tendon in her arm” on the job and, after 14 surgeries, counts on the disability benefit to get by. Ray is lucky enough to be able to supplement her benefit check—in 2014, Van Berkel writes, the median monthly benefit for a disabled worker in Minnesota was $1,068.90—with a hard-to-find part-time desk job that can accommodate her limitations. It’s not only the disabled residents of towns like Walker who rely on disability benefits, Van Berkel explains, but also “the local businesses where they spend their money.” What’s more, she found, by the time residents clear the difficult hurdles of getting benefits, they’ve often used up any savings they may have had. One man, who’s currently receiving benefits, told her he struggled to pay his expenses. By the time he was approved, he was down to $4,000 in savings. 

“There will always be people gaming the system,” Van Berkel told me, “but I heard from so many others who struggled and were dependent on disability benefits. There were some real needs.”

That’s what Stewart found, too, in his reporting in the Dayton area. He focused on the backlog of people appealing denied benefits claims and waiting, often for a year or more, for their cases to be heard by Social Security administrative law judges. “Some people die” while waiting, Stewart writes, while “others with serious physical or mental disabilities are left to live in squalid conditions or, in some cases, on the street.” For 48-year-old Rainey Cowgill who, after a triple bypass in 2013 could not return to construction work and has twice been denied benefits, the four-stage appeals process has been a “years-long limbo,” which Cowgill says has left him feeling “helpless.”

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Another Ohioan featured in Stewart’s piece has been applying and appealing for disability benefits since 2003. Most recently, his appeal was denied because much of the evidence he submitted didn’t come from certified medical sources or licensed psychologists or psychiatrists, and the judge cited his lifestyle, which suggested he could function normally. Stewart, who read his subjects’ case files, told me “it wasn’t my intent to judge people.” He said he was presenting the facts of the case as he read them. “A lot of claimants don’t understand some of the guidelines the law judges use to determine eligibility,” Stewart said. “Sometimes claimants find that hard to accept.”

Through his examination of the administrative law judge system, Stewart gives readers a sense of the difficulties of deciding cases and the enormity of the backlog. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to review 1,000 pages of medical evidence,” asked Marilyn Zahm of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. “They [claimants] sometimes have as many as five to 10 impairments. You need to make findings on all of them.” One judge, testifying in 2010 in front of federal lawmakers, called the bottlenecked appeals system “a disaster for due process.”

While discussing his reporting with me, Stewart mentioned that old legal maxim, justice delayed is justice denied, adding, “The delays hurt the most those people who have difficulties making ends meet.” According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank, poverty rates are nearly twice as high for SSDI beneficiaries—even taking into account their benefits—as for others. In the national debate over our social safety net, it’s important that the voices of those beneficiaries don’t get lost. With their local coverage, Stewart and Van Berkel offer strong examples of how that can be done.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.