Monday, December 30, 2013

Government Vows To Clean Up Disability Program Waste

Government tries to clean up disability program

(By in Hoppy's Commentary | December 30, 2013)
(NOTE: the views expressed here are those of Hoppy Kercheval and his alone. If you want some accurate information about the Social Security Disability Determination Process, you would be wise to read socialNsecurity, the Confessions of a Social Security Judge. Available on See )

The federal government may finally be getting a handle on the runaway Social Security Disability Insurance Program. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Social Security Administration is “tightening its grip on 1,500 administrative law judges to ensure that disability benefits are awarded consistently and to reign in fraud in the program.”
SSDI payments have risen dramatically in recent years.  A combination of the economic downtown driving more unemployed workers to the program and liberal awarding of benefits by some judges has raised SSDI rolls 20 percent in the last six years to 12 million people, with an annual budget of $135 billion.
At this rate, the disability program will have spent all its reserves by 2016, forcing either an increase in payroll taxes or a cut in benefits.
The Journal reports that the administrative law judges (ALJ) will no longer have “complete individual independence.”  Instead, they will be subject to supervision and management from the Social Security Administration (SSA).
The Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ) , the union representing the judges says it fears that will open the process to political interference, but that’s a straw man.  Many of these disability judges need someone looking over their shoulder.
The poster boy for waste, fraud and abuse in SSDI is ALJ  D.B. Daugherty of Huntington.  As a Social Security administrative law judge, Daugherty awarded benefits in virtually every case… thousands of them.  He worked closely with attorney Attorney Eric Conn, who advertised heavily in West Virginia and Kentucky, looking for potential clients.

According to the Journal, Daugherty once told a colleague, “Some of these judges act like it’s their own damn money we’re giving away.”  Daugherty resigned after the Journal first reported the story in 2011.
 During the Great Depression, when Congress was first considering a federal insurance program for the disabled (the law didn’t pass until almost 20 years later), a Social Security Advisory Council actuary warned of costs beyond “anything that can be forecast.”
The fear was that well-intentioned assistance for any person with impairments of mind or body that would keep him from being gainfully employed for their rest of his life would devolve into a version of unemployment.
That warning has proven prophetic as this country’s Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program has spun out of control and is now on course to run out of money by 2016.
Sunday night, CBS 60 Minutes aired a segment entitled “Disability USA,” which probed the abuse of SSDI.  Steve Kroft reported that SSDI rolls have risen 20 percent just in the last six years to 12 million people, with a budget of $135 billion.
West Virginia, despite a small population, is a big contributor to the SSDI rolls.  The AP reports that “West Virginia leads the nation in the percentage of adults receiving government assistance for disabilities.”
A big reason for the surge in SSDI is that people who have had their claims denied are hiring law firms that specialize in winning appeals.
According to 60 Minutes, “Last year, the Social Security Administration paid a billion dollars to claimants’ lawyers out of its cash-strapped disability trust fund.  The biggest chunk–$70 million—went to Binder & Binder, the largest disability firm in the country.
Jenna Fliszar, a lawyer who used to work for Binder & Binder and represent clients from West Virginia and other states, told CBS, “I call it a legal factory because that’s all it is.  They have figured out the system and they’ve made it into a huge national firm that makes millions of dollars a year on Social Security Disability.”
In 2011, the Wall Street Journal’s Damian Paletta reported on one Huntington-based disability judge who nearly always sided with the claimant.  Judge David B. “D.B.” Daugherty awarded benefits in all but four of 1,284 cases during one fiscal year.  The national average is 60 percent approval.
A report by the Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs estimates that Daugherty awarded more than $2.5 billion in benefits in the last 7 years of his career.
The Journal reported that Daugherty worked closely with lawyer Eric Conn, who advertises heavily in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky, looking for potential clients. Daugherty resigned after the Journal’s reports. Conn, who continues a thriving practice in SSDI cases, was evasive in a brief interview with 60 Minutes about his relationship with the former judge.
The abuse of the SSDI system has caught the attention of the Senate Committee on Government Affairs. It held a hearing Monday and issued a report finding “a raft of improper practices by the Conn law firm to obtain disability benefits, inappropriate collusion between Mr. Conn and a Social Security Administrative Law Judge (Daugherty), and inept agency oversight which enabled the misconduct to continue for years.”
The Committee report says Daugherty’s bank records show $96,000 in cash deposits from 2003 to 2011, for which Daugherty refused to explain the origin or source of the funds.
As one of the SSDI administrative judges said, “If the American public knew what was going on in our system, half would be outraged and the other half would apply for benefits.”
Frankly, it’s predictable that Americans hit by hard economic times are tempted to latch on to any government help they can, especially when there is an alliance of lawyers, doctors and judges willing to shepherd them through the system.
In doing so, however, they are squandering taxpayer dollars and bankrupting a legitimate program.
Meanwhile, earlier this year federal authorities arrested 75 people in Puerto Rico on charges of defrauding SSDI out of millions of dollars.  A former Social Security employee teamed with complicit doctors to falsely diagnose individuals as mentally incapable of working.
But the problem is not just the outliers like Daugherty and the Puerto Rican scam.
As the Journal reports, there is widespread disparity in how judge’s rule.  “Dozens of judges awarded benefits in 90 percent of their cases, while others were much less likely to find someone unable to find work, denying benefits in more than 80 percent of their cases, data showed.”
SSDI is an essential part of the country’s safety net.  Those who are impaired, either in mind or body, and cannot work are entitled by law to support.  However, it’s important to remember that SSDI is not another option for the unemployed, nor should it be an easy target for scammers.
Politicians like to say they can save taxpayer dollars by tightening up on waste, fraud and abuse–it’s easier than proposing real budget cuts–but in the case of SSDI, they’re right about the profligate misspending.
A top lawmaker January 16 demanded a top-to-bottom review of the Social Security Administration’s management structure, following a series of disability scandals that have rocked the agency and led to widespread government scrutiny.
Rep. Sam Johnson (R., Texas), who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees Social Security, directed the Social Security Administration’s inspector general to launch the review.
The demand comes one week after the Manhattan District Attorney’s office brought a case alleging more than 100 people – including former firemen and police officers – were cheating the Social Security Disability Insurance program by improperly collecting benefits when they shouldn’t have.

In August, the U.S. Attorney in Puerto Rico brought another large case alleging widescale disability fraud — one of the largest sweeps since the program was created in the 1950s and the first major case since the program’s rapid expansion during the financial crisis.
And the Justice Department is also looking into whether there was an improper relationship between a former Social Security judge (Daugherty) in West Virginia and a disability lawyer in Kentucky.

The Social Security Administration primarily authorizes two kinds of benefits, one for older Americans and another for people who are no longer able to work because of health problems.
The disability program pays close to $140 billion in benefits to roughly 11 million people, making it one of the government’s largest – but least known – entitlement programs.
A number of Democrats have joined Republicans in demanding more answers from top Social Security Administration officials, as the recent scandals come at a time when the SSDI program is quickly exhausting its reserves. Its trust fund is projected to run out of money in 2016.
Mr. Johnson called for the review during a hearing at which SSA acting commissioner Carolyn Colvin and SSA inspector general Patrick O’Carroll testified. Though Mr. O’Carroll’s division is responsible for overseeing and even investigating the agency’s operations, the IG has stopped short of criticizing any of the agency’s actions with regard to the cases in New York, Puerto Rico, and West Virginia. In fact, in recent months, senior SSA officials have told Congress that disability fraud is very rare, and the IG’s office hasn’t refuted that view.
A top-to-bottom review, as demanded by Mr. Johnson, could create a more adversarial relationship between the IG and top SSA brass than has existed in recent years.
As the disability program has grown, it has faced a number of strains. Millions of Americans applied for benefits during the economic downturn, straining the agency’s resources and forcing many judges to ramp up their workload for processing appeals. This has created a growing tension between a number of judges and senior SSA management, leading to at least one lawsuit. Meanwhile, the agency has taken steps to tighten its control over the administrative law judges.
Ms. Colvin is running the agency until the White House nominates a commissioner, and the White House has not signaled when it might move on the vacancy.

Friday, December 13, 2013

From Red Neck to Red Beans and Rice. Downey, California in 30 Years.



Downey, California: A new kind of suburban idyll

The etched-glass door of the Downey Brewing Company still reads "Foxy's" -- all that's left of the restaurant that occupied the space for decades, catering to a long-gone crowd.
Pub co-owner Sergio Vasquez remembers the place as "a coffee shop which served Scandinavian food." But, he says, as the city's demographics changed, "The population didn’t catch up with it. The only people that really attended were elderly people. They decided to shut it down. And that’s where we came in.”
Today, the five-year-old boutique brewpub buzzes with the sounds of craft beer pouring out of taps, clanking glasses and dishes, and a crowd of patrons that - like the population on the outside - is mostly Latino.
 Downey Middle Class

(Jessica Haro and Eric Ibarra sit at a fountain on the corner of Firestone Blvd and Downey Ave on November 9th, 2013.) Photo by Mae Ryan/KPCC

In some ways, the pub's story reflects the story of Downey, a onetime aerospace hub which, like nearby Whittier and a cluster of other Southern California communities, embodies the latest chapter in the evolution of Latino L.A.

Back in 1980, Downey was mostly non-Latino white, with Latinos representing less than 17 percent of the population.

 It was an earlier era's picture of the suburban idyll: wide green lawns, tidy ranch-style homes,

 a Stonewood Shopping mall, a golf course,

 an iconic McDonald's with golden arches that's still the chain's oldest surviving outlet.
                 (Karen and Richard Carpenter grew up in this house in Downey)

The Carpenters, the soft-pop singing duo, once attended Downey High School, the home of the Vikings..

Thousands of residents held good jobs at the sprawling Rockwell aerospace plant, which in its heyday produced Apollo capsules and the Space Shuttle.

But defense cuts began taking their toll in the 1990s.

By the time the plant closed in 1999, the city's white suburban identity was in a state of flux, with many families moving out.
(Above, Russel Epson, a member of the Downey Seventh-Day Adventist Church, take his daily walk down Downey Avenue.)
Left behind was a mix of retirees, languishing businesses,

 and - for some Latinos who had been saving their pennies in more modest communities nearby – opportunity.

Like Vasquez, who grew up a short distance to the west in Bell, Latin American immigrants and their descendants gradually began transforming the city.

They started buying up the ranch-style homes and investing in businesses.

 Today Downey is 71 percent Latino – and like their predecessors – these newer residents are mostly middle class.

University of Southern California sociologist Jody Vallejo says they represent a growing group of upwardly mobile (Yuppies) Latinos who have chosen to settle in Latino-majority communities that reflect their economic reality. These include Whittier, West Covina, pockets of Orange County, and Downey,

"Which is often referred to by Mexican Americans themselves as the Mexican American Beverly Hills," Vallejo says.

Okay, so it's not quite Beverly Hills.

Downey has a mix of more and less affluent neighborhoods, with property values generally higher on the north end of town.

But with a median annual household income of more than $60,000 - and close to 40 percent of its households earning $75,000 or more, according to a Cal State Long Beach analysis  - it’s earned its reputation as a middle class Latino stronghold.

The Latino version of the middle-class "ethnoburb" - a term typically associated with Asian American suburbs - is a phenomenon that Vallejo says began in the 1990s but took off in earnest during the last decade.

 It coincides with slow but steady gains in educational and career attainment among Latinos as the great, post-1965 wave of immigration from Latin American settles into its second and third generations.

For those who succeed, moving into communities once perceived as out of reach is part of "making it," Vallejo says.

"Many Latinos who are moving to places like Downey did grow up in places like South Gate or Lynwood, and really saw, or see, Downey as the next step," Vallejo says.

 "Growing up, you thought that's where all the wealthy or the middle class people lived.”
 (Reeves Mansion on Paramount Boulevard, across from the Nordic Fox restaurant.)
Mexico City transplant Elsa Valdez once lived in Maywood. But for her, Downey was the always the place to go.
                                     (The Krikorian Theater)
“This is the city that we were coming to the mall, to the theaters," Valdez said. "I see the city that it was cleaner than the city that I was living. It is also really close to my community, that is, Latin people in Huntington Park, Maywood, Cudahy and all those cities.”
Valdez bought in Downey in 1995. Now she sells real estate in the area, and says most of her clients are the children of immigrants - entrepreneurs and professionals who can afford homes costing half a million or more.
This latest wave of residents has spawned a new wave of businesses, including upscale Latino-owned ones.

 Recently, Valdez took her mother to lunch at Porto's, L.A.’s famous bakery begun decades ago by a Cuban immigrant family. The $14 million Downey location opened three years ago, drawing long lines of customers who line up at gleaming glass counters to order flawless guava pastries and steaming cups of café con leche brewed on on luxe equipment.

City officials have drawn several chain restaurants and other businesses catering to middle-class tastes, but there's a homegrown element, too: an art gallery that opened last year and highlights the work of local artists, for example, and a soon-to-open upscale independent steakhouse whose chef has promised a signature mac and cheese spiked with chorizo.

"All one needs to do is look around to see the effects of gentefication," says Vallejo,

 using a coined term that refers to gentrification by Latinos.

There are still a few wants: For example, a specialty grocer. A Facebook campaign by residents to lure a much-coveted Trader Joe's (Whittier has the nearest) has not yet done so.
Outgoing Downey mayor Mario Guerra says that in some cases, a majority Latino population can still be a hard sell for some retailers.
       (New Downey Mayor, Vernando Vasquez was sworn in December 2013)
“There’s certain businesses that look at a certain demographic, and don’t take in the reality and look at the buying power of Latinos," Guerra says. "And it’s sad for them, because they are missing out on opportunities.”
(At Sambi's of Tokyo for a Sister City Association Christmas Party with former Mayors Barbara Riley and Joyce Lawrence of Downey.)
(Above, Former Mayor Rick Lopez and Judge London Steverson at City Hall. circa 2003.)

But there are others willing to cash in on that buying power.
(The Abortion Clinic on Firestone was open six days a week. Right-to-Lifers were picketing out front)

Guerra and other city officials broke ground recently at the old Rockwell site, making way for a new development that will host theaters, restaurants and a pedestrian shopping village.
      (As we drive out of Downey on Firestone Boulevard, we wish you well.)

After being sworn in, Mayor Fernando Vasquez said "Only in America can a son of immigrant parents with a 1st grade education earn a college education and become the Mayor of Downey. Thank you Downey for allowing me to serve as your 46th Mayor!"

Leslie Berestein-Rojas
Leslie Berestein Rojas, Immigration and Emerging Communities Reporter
"On Tuesday I was sworn in as the Mayor of Downey. It was a historic night for our city as I became the first Latina to be sworn in as Mayor for our great city of Downey. Equally historical is that this is the first time in the history of Downey that two females serve together as Mayor and Mayor Pro Tem. Claudia Marroquin- Frometa is our Mayor Pro Tem and I look forward to serving with her in our new roles.
I am truly blessed and honored to serve as Mayor. Thank you to all the residents who voted me into office in 2016, and have given me this opportunity to serve our city.
To everyone that posted on my Facebook page, thank you for your congratulatory messages. To everyone that came to my swearing in, thank you for attending. It was nice to see everyone!!" (Blanco Pacheco)
❤️💕 #downey #Mayor2020
(Above, Mayor Blanco Pacheco, center, with Miss Teen Downey 2019-2020, Sarah and her brother, Sam,)
Image may contain: 3 people, including Blanca Pacheco, people smiling, screen  
  • More from Leslie Berestein Roja

    • Fernando Vasquez, center, was sworn-in as Downey mayor Tuesday. He is pictured with finance commissioners Jason Valle and Ricardo Perez.

    Vasquez becomes Downey's 46th mayor
    New mayor plans expanded community events in 2014, including a 'Tour de Downey.'
    WRITTEN BY :   Christian Brown, Staff Writer

    DOWNEY - With more than 100 community leaders, city officials, and residents looking on, Councilman Fernando Vasquez was sworn-in as the 46th mayor of Downey on Tuesday night December 10.

    The 34-year-old councilman, who was elected in 2010, was administered the oath of office by his fiance' Donna Noushkam.

    Echoing themes of economic growth, quality of life, and community engagement, Vasquez reaffirmed the city's commitment to the Healthy Downey initiative by introducing an array of new 2014 community events, including a "Tour de Downey" bicycle race.

    "Folks, we're going to have a big Downey bike day with a 30-mile route for experienced cyclists and a five-mile route for those who want something smaller," he said. "But we want to promote active living and encourage people to spend time in Downtown Downey."

    Vasquez said he will also advocate a bicycle-sharing program modeled after a similar system in Denver. The program will allow users to pick up and drop off bicycles as often as they like at designated stations throughout the downtown area using their credit cards as currency.

    The incoming mayor also said he hopes to host a FIFA World Cup viewing party for the community on June 22 when the United States soccer team faces Portugal.

    "Soccer is very popular in our community -- and I see a lot of communities come together for these games," he said. "We're very fortunate that the U.S. plays Portugal on a Saturday at noon."

    Vasquez's other community-building events include an international food festival, highlighting Downey's strong Mexican, Cuban, Greek, Lebanese, Argentine and Brazilian communities, summer sunset rooftop events, such as movie screenings, and a music and arts festival.

    "We want to rebrand the city as a regional hub for arts and culture. There's been a huge push for the arts, it's one of the city's strengths," Vasquez said. "Cities like Long Beach and Santa Monica are known for their arts communities, but in Downey, we have a lot of talent. We need to support them."

    In addition to the new events, Vasquez said he plans to hand out Mayor's Healthy Heart awards to local hospitals, nursing facilities, doctors, coaches, teachers, and trainers who are making a difference in the community.

    Vasquez also pledged to embrace new technologies such as solar power on public facilities, online water bill payment options, and social media for means of community engagement.

    "Managing city funds responsibly, business and economic growth, running city operations smoothly, maintaining a high quality of life, and engaging our citizens...anything proposed [by the council] has to meet these priorities," said Vasquez. "We will continue to have a balanced budget and a healthy reserve so we can weather any storm in the future."

    Citing it as a quality of service issue, Vasquez also strongly reaffirmed his commitment to maintain the Downey Fire Department.

    Before Vasquez's swearing-in ceremony, outgoing mayor Mario Guerra gave a final address, highlighting the accomplishments of the Healthy Downey initiative, which motivated him to lose 84 pounds over the course of 2013.

    During his tenure, Guerra facilitated Walking Wednesdays, Walk to School Day, National Night Out, and Dia De Los Muertos, which was attended by 4,000 people.

    In 2013, Downey became an All-America City and a sister city to Roscommon County, Ireland, the birthplace of the city's namesake Governor John Gately Downey.

    Guerra also touted the groundbreaking ceremonies for The View apartment complex, the Downey Gateway food court, and the Promenade at Downey, which will create 1,500 permanent jobs once completed.

    "I'm looking forward to working with Mayor Vasquez. When I leave, I do get a different office," Guerra said drawing laughs. "But we're in good hands -- Fernando has a great vision."