Must-see morning clip: Why the Federal Disability Insurance Program is running out of money

Sen. Tom Coburn says that the program is at risk because Americans are gaming the system

Published October 7, 2013 1:02PM (EDT)

The Senate Committee on Government Affairs will on Monday discuss the Federal Disability Insurance Program, which runs the risk of becoming the first government benefits program to run out of money. With a budget of $135 billion, the program, which now serves almost 12 million people, is larger than what the government "spent last year on the Department of Homeland Security, the Justice Department, and the Labor Department combined," reports "60 Minutes'" Steve Kroft.

But the program was originally intended to be a "small program to assist people who were unable to work because of illness or injury."

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the head Republican on the Senate Subcommittee for Investigations, says that "my investigation tells me and my common sense tells me that we got a system that's being gamed pretty big right now."

According to his investigation, Coburn, who is also a physician, found that a quarter should not have qualified and that another 20 percent were "highly questionable."

Jenna Fliszar, a lawyer with Binder & Binder, the largest disability firm in the country, backed up Coburn's claim:

Steve Kroft: Out of the hundreds of people that you represented, how many of these cases involved strong cases for disability?

Jenna Fliszar: Strong cases I would say maybe 30 percent to 40 percent. And then I would say half of my cases were not deserving of disability.

Steve Kroft: How many of them ultimately ended up getting benefits?

Jenna Fliszar: Half.

"We ought to err on the side of somebody being potentially disabled," said Coburn. "And we have a ton of people in our country that are, but what's coming about now with where we are, is the very people who are truly disabled, because we have so many scallywags in the system, are going to get hurt severely when this trust fund runs out of money."

Kroft clarified that "no one is getting rich off disability payments of $1,100 a month. It's a minimum wage income with Medicare benefits after two years."

"But each new case will eventually cost taxpayers, on average, $300,000 in lifetime benefits," he said.

Update: The Los Angeles Times has called "60 Minutes's" story "a shameful attack on the disabled," saying that it only offers one side of a subject that's very complex. Writes Michael Hiltzik:

The relationship between disability and unemployment is much more nuanced. As we explained in April, disabled people always have more difficulty finding jobs than others; when desk jobs disappear and all that's left are laborers' positions, the opportunities for the physically and mentally challenged shrink. A good economy allows more disabled persons to find gainful employment and stay off the rolls; in a bad economy that path isn't open.

The most pernicious lie told about the disability program is that it's easy to obtain benefits. "60 Minutes" repeated that lie. The truth is that disability standards are stringent, and they're applied stringently. Two-thirds of all applicants are initially denied, though 10% or so of all applicants win benefits on appeal. All in all, 41% of all applicants end up with checks. Sound easy to you?

By Prachi Gupta

Prachi Gupta is an Assistant News Editor for Salon, focusing on pop culture. Follow her on Twitter at @prachigu or email her at

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