by Scott Creighton
[see UPDATE at end of article]
The Wave of Integrity
Over the years of doing this I have learned that the hardest things to write about are those that are the most personal. The things that lay bare who I am and what I have become. How I live and how I lived up to the expectations I set for myself all those years ago is a point of contention for me. While I am proud of this work, I am not proud.
We are all impacted by social conditioning whether we want to admit it or not. Though no rational reading of my work over the past 9 years would lead anyone to conclude I am a follower or a conformist, I am not immune to the narcotic lure of the American Dream and the promise it holds of a better life just beyond the horizon.
As a result I am not inoculated against the shame of the failure to realize that dream or the dread that comes from seeing an awful nightmare replace it just beyond the skyline.
American Everyman is about to change. I am about to change. And it is the direct result of a vicious and cruel program justified by the manufactured “crisis” created to justify the incremental change to the Social Security Administration in pursuit of their ultimate prize: privatization.
This is how they impose unpopular policies: they see a target, they create a crisis and offer a solution that wins them their target. When it comes to changing domestic economic policy, the favored method of manufacturing the necessary crisis is under-funding programs they wish to fundamentally change. They are doing it to the VA. They are doing it to public education. They are doing it to the postal service. They did it to the prison system. And, they are doing it to the Social Security Administration and have been for quite sometime. In 2010, under the left-cover of the Obama administration, they enacted the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 which reduced the amount paid into Social Security by employees by 2% for 2011 and 2012 which allowed neoliberal lawmakers to declare an evolving crisis in the Social Security system that had to be addressed because, as we were told, “at the current wage base structure” the program would collapse by (pick a year)
That crisis combined with an uptick in Disability Benefits claims in the wake of the designed economic collapse of 2007-2008, produced mixed results in their efforts to privatize SS due to the fact that SS is a popular program even among right wing republicans (and for that you can simply Google Donald Trump’s views on it)
So what they decided to do once their crisis was in place in 2014 was pump an additional 1.4 billion dollars into the Social Security continuing disability review boards nationwide in order to provide what they called “program integrity” for the SSD program. They also decided to stop keeping official track of how many disabled people were kicked off disability every year. The last such numbers were reported in 2013 at about 17,000. In 2015 there were 790,000 continuing disability reviews which was double what it was on average from 2009 to 2013 and therefore it is easy to assess that at least 34,000 people were kicked off disability that year and probably more considering the fact that the major increase in the budget of the review program is contingent on kicking as many people as possible off disability. Where those numbers are in 2016 is anyone’s guess as that is the year which was determined to be the deadline for the program if they didn’t massively reduce the roll of people on it. In all likelihood, there is a good reason they decided to stop keeping track of disabled people kicked to the curb by the system set in place as their last social safety net in this country.
Without being privy to the exact numbers involved, I can tell you there is at least one disabled person now stricken from the disability insurance program he paid into his entire working life: me.
I will not say there is no fraud committed by people either “double dipping” with other safety net programs or folks who are on disability who really aren’t and who work under the table this very day. I personally know at least one and possibly more, but I am not that social so that’s about all I can attest to. But evidence does show that there are many out there who should be off the program and to that end, SSD had a system in place to provide reviews before this extra 1.4 billion dollars of incentive money was kicked into the mix.
What I can say without any question is that the review process itself is tilted in favor of the cheater.
My own review process has been going on for two years, slightly more actually, and never once was I able to afford a lawyer to represent me during the process. I attempted to do it myself. This was a mistake but one born of poverty, not ego.
How is it possible that someone who is truly unable to work and living on an average SSD payment of under $1,200 per month, is able to pay the $3,000+ average cost of legal representation in this process? The fees are usually demanded up front by the legal experts, at least that was the case with all those I spoke to years ago. It is not or at least it is highly unlikely even if they manage to live with $0 monthly living expenses.
My point is simple: if you are a review board and you are tasked with producing a certain high percentage of “unfavorable” decisions in your rulings in order to meet a quota set by those now employed with the extra 1.4 billion dollar extra financing at the SSA, who do you target? The “disabled” who come in with the expensive lawyers in tow… or the disabled who have to defend themselves?
That isn’t hard to understand, is it?
The results? The appearance of “program integrity” as tens of thousands are cut from the disability insurance program while in reality, the exact opposite is true.
Take my case for instance:
On March the 3rd I attended the final hearing of my review before Administrative Law Judge Wallace Weakley. I walked in without a lawyer and the hearing lasted an hour and forty minutes. With me I brought copies of my original medical reports from my original declaration of disability as well as numerous new documents relating to my medical treatments and condition since then.
I was immediately struck by the fact that in the notice sent to me about the hearing, I had been instructed to be prepared to show that my condition was “continuing” but Judge Weakley told me that was inaccurate and in fact I was there to present my case to prove I was disabled. It was as if what came before, the previous ruling of my disability from that very same program, in that very same room all those years ago, had been thrown out. And indeed, that is how Judge Weakley approached the hearing.
My Own Case History
At this point it is necessary to disclose a bit more of my history than I care to but in order to make my point about how they are deliberately kicking disabled people off the rolls of the disability insurance program we paid into, I have to provide evidence that I am not one of those who either faked my illness or signed up for it due to the economic crisis of 2007-2008 or in fact, continued to work while claiming disability.
In 2006, after just turning 40, I owned my own business, an architectural drafting and design company which basically consisted of one employee, me. I worked free lance for several commercial businesses providing them with drafting services and some project management services. These were design/build firms, general contractors, residential cabinet companies and commercial fountain businesses located throughout this area.
Like many people, when I hit that age, my metabolism changed and in my case, so did my clotting factor. But I had no idea until one night, at home, I stood up, felt massive chest pain, felt dizzy, threw up, fell on the ground, repeated that process a couple times and woke up with my mother and neighbor telling me the ambulance was on it’s way. How long I had been there on the floor, I don’t know to this day. I lived alone at the time.
I was in the hospital for a week due to a completely occlusive thrombotic blockage of my popliteal vein. A deep vein thrombosis (DVT). My leg had swollen to the point where I couldn’t see the toes on my left foot. But that wasn’t the problem. The real problem was that some of it had broken off and traveled to my lungs. Like many people who have suffered from this, a pulmonary embolism was my first clue that something was wrong. Though I had been noticing swelling of my leg in the days just prior to this event, I attributed it to spending too much time at the computer drafting with my leg tucked up under my chair and simply shrugged it off, straightened my leg and went on with my work. Like many small business owners I did not carry insurance on myself at the time but even if I did, I probably would not have bothered having it checked out. A simple sonogram at that point in my life would have made a world of difference. DVTs are bad, but PEs are much worse and so detection is critical at an early stage.
I have also suffered from Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) for many years. As a young man I started developing bi-annual bouts with acute bronchitis which visited me every year starting in 1984 and continuing until I moved to Florida in 2002. That combined with smoking weakened my lungs but not to the point of disability. The damage caused by the PE changed that.
It took a while to recover from the DVT and PE and I tried to return to work after about 6 months but it was difficult. Several clients had to find other contractors to keep their work on schedule but I still had a few and did what I could to continue with my business.
As the pain and swelling in my leg continued and breathing because more difficult, I applied for disability in that it was severely affecting my ability to work and eventually I won my case.
As it turned out, in 2009 I was in the hospital recovering from my second PE when I received notification that I had been determined to be fully disabled. I called my lawyer from Binder and Binder and informed her of the news. I had to fax her a copy of the notification letter from University Community Hospital.
Pulmonary Embolisms are extremely dangerous and I have now suffered from three of them at least. That is three that I had to go to the hospital and remain for days on end as a result of them. Smaller ones have certainly occurred over the years but only registered as pain and not such to the level of me going to the hospital.
None of this is in question by the Administrative Law Judge Wallace Weakley as he demonstrated in his official ruling mailed to me yesterday. He concedes that my disability existed due to multiple DVTs, PEs and recurring medical issues with COPD.
But then, remarkably, his conclusion determines my disability “ended” as of March 2014. However, his findings report the following information, based on records provided by me and confirmed by the sources:
- Florida Hospital Feb. 15th -Feb. 17th 2015: “A computerized tomography scan of the chest showed extensive right sided pulmonary embolism (PE)… and a decreased air entry on the right side
- Florida Hospital Nov. 9th 2015 : “claimant reported shortness of breath, leg pain… studies of the lower left extremity revealed nonoclusive thrombus (DVT) present to the mid to distal superficial femoral vein and popliteal vein“
- Florida Hospital Feb. 24 2016: “seen on this date due to acute exacerbation of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and acute chest pain“
(These are not the entirety of medical records provided by me to this administrative judge)
If the law judge accepts the fact that I was correctly determined to have been disabled due to a DVT, PE and COPD as would be implied by his determination that my disability “ended” in March of 2014, how is it possible that between Mar. 2014 and 2006, I had another diagnosis of COPD, another major clotting incident causing another DVT and PE which hospitalized me in 2009 and my disability “ended” at that time? Would it not seem to be a continuing problem from 2006 to 2014? What was the determining factor of my disability “ending” on that day specifically?
What’s more, since my disability was based on DVTs, PEs and COPD in the first place, how is it possible that it “ended” in Mar of 2014 when these conditions CLEARLY continued well into 2016 and in fact, continue to this very day?
I have just recently been enrolled in a clinical study down here so I can receive medication at no cost and that study is based on a per-determined criteria of the participants in the study having COPD.
I still suffer from daily leg and chest pain. Shortness of breath. Weakness. Dizziness. Leg swelling brought on by Postthrombic Syndrome (which I was diagnosed with after my second DVT and PE in 2009). All of which are well documented side effects of the ongoing physical ailments I unfortunately suffer from. These symptoms have not gone away nor will they. My capacity to do the work I have done most of my adult life has been greatly diminished and that’s not just me saying that, that is Administrative Law Judge Weakley’s own expert on the subject who was there at the hearing who said that. This is a determination she made in the hearing, which he ends up agreeing with.
“The claimant has a past relevant work as an architectural drafter which is considered sedentary skilled work and as a carpenter which is considered medium skilled work performed as heavy.
The vocational expert was asked to testify as to the claimant’s ability to perform his past relevant work. The vocational expert testified that, given the residual functional capacity detailed above, the claimant would be incapable of performing his past relevant work. The undersigned has evaluated the testimony of the vocational expert in light of the provisions of Social Security Ruling 00-4p in finding that testimony to be credible. Accordingly, given the residual functional capacity detailed above, the undersigned (Judge Weakley) found that claimant would be incapable of performing his past relevant work as of March 3, 2014“
So to summarize, I am now declared to be no longer disabled as of Mar. 3, 2014 even though according to the administrative law judge:
- I still suffer from residual effects of previous DVTs, PEs, COPD and Postthrombic Syndrome
- I have developed a DVT since then (and remain at a high risk of another)
- I have suffered an extensive PE since then (and remain at a high risk of another)
- I have been recently diagnosed (twice) with ongoing COPD since then
- I am currently incapable of performing past relevant work, sedentary work or medium/heavy work.
This is a remarkable feat of legal gymnastics in my opinion.
In his final evaluation, the judge is suggesting that there is a very narrow band of “light work” that I could be capable of doing but in order to make that claim, he has to disregard testimony from my mother, a SSA doctor who evaluated my condition and parts of my own testimony as well. That testimony goes to the range of motion and breathing/pain issues associated with my condition. Upon dismissing that testimony out of hand, the judge qualifies this narrow band of “light work” that I would be able to do:
“After careful consideration of the entire record, the undersigned finds that, s of March 3, 2014, the claimant had the residual functional capacity to perform light work as defined in 20 CFR 404.1567(b) except the claimant can lift up to 20 pounds occasionally and lift or carry 1o pounds frequently. The claimant requires a sit/stand option and can sit for 1 to 1.5 hours and stand for 30 minutes at a time, and sit/stand a total of 8 hours a day. The claimant can occasionally bend, stoop, kneel, climb ramps and stairs in an air-conditioned environment. The claimant must avoid excessive heat or cold and no work around hazardous equipment or machinery.”
While the judge admitted that “additional limitations” prevented me from being found “not disabled” by way of being able to do “light work”, he tried to ascertain from the vocational expert a list of occupations and current job openings “in the United States” that I would be capable of doing. She then provided three “light work” options that she found and gave numbers of employment opportunities of these openings “nationwide”
But there was one caveat in his acceptance of her job opening findings that I could qualify for:
“The vocational expert’s testimony is consistent with the information contained in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, except for the consideration of the sit/stand option, since it is simply not addressed in the DOT.”
His listing of these occupational opportunities that are apparently available to me, work that I could do if you disregard my own testimony, my mother’s and that of a Social Security Administration doctor, are contingent upon his own conclusion that I had to work in an environment that was air-conditioned, far from machinery and… provided me with the ability to either sit or stand as I needed while completing the tasks at hand.
I believe it is safe to suggest the plausibility of perhaps 50% of those “nationwide” jobs opportunities would be closed immediately once those determining factors are considered. If not more.
Finally, there was one last major bit of legal gymnastics performed by Administrative Judge Wallace Weakley in his official finding and that one is perhaps the most telling of all.
At the end of the hearing, after the vocational expert gave her testimony, just before I was allowed to ask questions, Judge Weakley asked a very pointed question to her. He asked her if any of these jobs opportunities would be available to me if you factor in the medications and daily treatments I have to take due to my condition.
Her answer was “no”
I had few questions to ask her myself. I clarified her point about the lack of any determination in the DOT about sit/stand options and she said it would certainly reduce the number of potential job opportunities, but she could imagine a few of them would permit such a work station for me.
Then I asked her to clarify what she meant by “no” when asked by Weakley about my treatments and job opportunities. She repeated herself and clarified it for me.
She stated that I would not qualify for anything she knows of given my physical condition, the medication I take and the treatments that I have to do every day.
Let me make that clear: according to Weakley’s own expert, if I continue with my medication and prescribed daily treatments as required by my doctors, there is nothing that I would be hired to do “nationwide”
Judge Weakley omitted that part of the vocational expert’s testimony from his final decision just as he dismissed testimony from the SSA doctor, my mother and of course, myself.
Judge Weakley concludes with:
“Based on the testimony of the vocational expert, the undersigned concludes that as of March 3, 2014, the claimant was capable of making a successful adjustment to work that existed in significant numbers in the national economy… the claimant’s disability ended as of March 3, 2014”
As a result of this dubious finding, Judge Weakley imposed an immediate end of my disability benefits leaving me less than a week to figure out how to pay rent, the electric bill, water, sewage, car insurance, credit card bills, doctor bills… everything. Less than a week.
If I don’t take my medication and if one or two of those businesses will allow someone like myself with EXTENSIVE medical history to work there under the narrow parameters which I require to perform “light work”, then I am just fine, according the the fine Administrative Law Judge Weakley to go back to work and have been since Mar. of 2014 (I wonder if they would have let me go after I had my third PE in 2015)
Isn’t it curious that it takes such a demonstrably dishonest determination to to produce this current tidal wave of “program integrity”?
I will not presuppose or attempt to assign motive Judge Weakley’s ruling. It could be that he has grown bitter after what must appear to be an endless barrage of people faking disability claims, one after the other. Or he might have seen me walk in there on two good legs and listened to me speak with relative clarity and sound judgement and concluded I could not be disabled in spite of the evidence before him. Perhaps DVTs, PEs and COPD are not a readily commonplace grounds for disability claims. Or maybe he based his decision on other criteria.
Perhaps he simply saw a claimant without a lawyer who walked in on his own two legs and spoke with clarity and thought to himself about his quota.
Whatever he did, he did it in a manner that defies logic and is soundly based in the end on the omission of key testimony from his own vocational expert whom he praised in the final ruling on other testimony he gave… and ultimately based his decision to declare me “not disabled” on her, incomplete, testimony.
My case must not be unique. I cannot advance from a position that believes that to be so. There must be thousands of other truly disabled individuals like myself tossed aside in such a manner as I have been and it is partly for them that I decided to make this personal tragedy of mine public.
And it is a tragedy because I am disabled and even according to the best case scenario which the judge himself has laid out, I would have to quit my daily medicines and treatments in order to find a few jobs “nationwide” that would even consider hiring me. That is, if I could somehow afford to relocate to some job in Utah that pays $9 an hour and would grant me all the things I need to be able to work (minus my medication of course)
This is the nature of neoliberalism. Allow the weak and sick to fend for themselves. Let them live off the charity of others or find some new low standard of living they can maintain without being a burden on society. Deny them the disability insurance they paid into for thirty years so that money can be privatized in the end with less overhead to reduce profits.
I am not the first victim of neoliberalism and I will certainly not be the last.
At this point I have hope that things are the works to keep me intact this month but I know that is a one time solution to this problem I face and my future is decidedly different than it was just a few hours ago really.
The skyline is rather dark today.
No one wants to live in poverty and therefore, no one wants to be disabled and living like I have been all these years. I tried a return to work twice. Both times I registered them with the SSA and both times they did not end well. I even drove to nearby cities every day in my efforts to get back some part of my life that I had before this happened to me.
But disability insurance allowed me to stay alive. It allowed me to go to the doctor and maintain my PT/INR and it provided me life saving medications that I cannot afford without it. It allowed me to provide a home for my animals and lately, my mother. And it allowed me the ability to continue to contribute to society as I have been doing these past 9 years here on this site.
Now that is done.
I have very little recourse in that I cannot afford a lawyer still and cannot afford the time to wait to try to find one.
Ultimately I will have to return to the only kind of work that will employ someone like me, without checking my medical background and based on my work history. It is not work that I will be capable of doing for very long but I have to try. Homelessness is the only other option.
This is not a pity party. I am simply one of millions tossed into the meat-grinder by another grinder doing his bit for “the greater good” whether he knows it or not. I, like millions of others out here and in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Greece, Haiti and countless other places in the world, am simply an externality. I am not special. None of us are. And that maybe should be moral of the story: to them, we are all expendable. Commodities that once used up, are tossed aside.
This website will continue as best I can manage. I do not know what path I take from here and though it will be different for me at home, my outlook, my hope, my opinions will remain the same. For these past 9 years I have been a scathing critic of neoliberal globalization and that will not change. I have been committed to a more peaceful foreign policy and that will not change. I have dedicated myself to exposing false flag events and vicious propaganda both at home and abroad and that will not change.
I will not be here as much as I have been but I will be here and I will try to continue to post every day.
I wish I knew how many disabled folks are being jettisoned by our “liberal” president every year in this fashion. The numbers must be horrifying. I personally only know of one and that’s bad enough.
My leg hurts, been sitting to long. I gotta call the doctor’s office and insurance company. The trivialities of the life of an externality I suppose.
I am proud of this work though. And for that I am thankful. It’s good to take pride in your work. I used to and that never left me. I hope it never does.
When you write something this personal you hope you’re not doing so in vein (no pun intended) and then you remember, sometimes bitter honesty works.
Years ago I replied to a request for information on a website about people on disability struggling to pay old college loan payments to privatized financial companies who held and managed the debt for the Department of Education. Their practices had become quite predatory and Pro Publica was doing a study on the subject along with the Center for Public Integrity to be published by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Sasha Chavkin made contact with me sometime late Dec. of 2010. He was working with Cezary Podkul, Jeannette Neumann, and Ben Protess on the study and decided he would like to interview me about what I was going through. In the end, my story made it into their study which was published on Pro Publica on Feb. 13th, 2011. I was sort of the poster-child… me and Church that is.
The result of their tireless work was that the Department of Education announced they were going to make some quick adjustments to the way disability loan forgiveness is processed and in very short time, they did.
The result of the work of Pro Publica via Sasha Chavkin, Cezary Podkul, Jeannette Neumann, and Ben Protess was that thousands of disabled people in the country were freed from the clutches of predatory financial institutions who were further crippling them after they fell ill and became disabled. I was one of them and for that I am forever grateful for their work.
Here I am, five years later, another DVT, another PE, more COPD and continued Postthrombic Syndrome and a judge decides I’m all better now, and if I just don’t take my meds and I move to Guam or something, I’ll be just fine.
Here’s hoping some good comes out of this story as well.
(For my mailing address, please email me at RSCdesigns@tampabay.rr.com)