Panic Street Lawyer: Meet me in health

Sunday, 13 October 2013 06:00 AM Written by  Jay Hornack

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I watched and listened to some amazing news features on television this week (and if you missed them, the internet provides you with opportunities to now catch those features at a convenient date, time, place, and format). Of course, the word “amazing” is value-neutral: both good and bad television can startle and stun.

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60 Minutes on CBS

As I feared in this space last week, the first article in last Sunday’s edition of this venerated news magazine was astoundingly one-sided. Entitled “Disability, USA,” Steve Kroft tried to make the case (in 13 out of 60 minutes) that the Social Security disability insurance program was “in an alarming state,” had “exploded in size the last four years,” and “could be the first become the first federal benefits program to first run out of money” -- all because it has been the victim of widespread system “gaming.”

While fully aware that there are cases of fraud in the Social Security system -- as in any system which is comprised of human beings -- what I found most remarkable about the report (as well as three “Web Extras”) was its omission of the voice of what “60 Minutes” calls the “truly disabled.” There are people in this country who meet the Social Security definition of disability and who have either been kept out of deep poverty and homelessness because of their benefits or have suffered such a fate because their applications were wrongly denied or slowly processed. Those voices were not heard. Instead the report told us that based on average “payments of $1,100 per month … each new case will eventually cost the taxpayer on average $300,000 in lifetime benefits.” Doing the math, it sounds like “60 Minutes” was telling viewers that each new case will pay the average claimant for nearly 23 years – which is false (1 in 5 male beneficiaries and nearly 1 in 6 female beneficiaries die within 5 years of receiving benefits). What “60 Minutes” did not mention is that its average equation also included the payment of medical expenses through Medicare (which only starts 2 years after the payment of monthly disability benefits).

But that is the kind of misstatement which is made when a report is trying too hard (for whatever reason) to make its case and not presenting more than one side to the story. Another example of this can be found in the voices of claimants’ attorneys that viewers heard and did not hear in the “60 Minutes” piece. The only 2 attorneys whose interviews were part of “Disability, USA” previously worked at the “disability mill” law firm of Binder and Binder (their website says they are “a national organization with regional home offices across America”). In its haste to criticize both the operations of Binder and Binder and one Kentucky lawyer – criticism which I fully acknowledge has validity – the report said that all lawyers who handle these types of cases “collect from the federal government” and that the Social Security Administration “pa[ys] … claimants’ lawyers out of its cash-strapped disability trust fund.” This incorrectly implies that claimants’ lawyers are paid fees for their work on top of the amount of benefits that claimants receive. The truth is that attorneys’ fees are typically taken out of past-due claimants benefits, in an amount that cannot exceed 25%, and ethical lawyers who handle these types of cases could have clarified this in the report had they been invited to do so.

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Frontline on PBS

On Tuesday evening the jaw-dropping investigative report on the National Football League and player concussions, “League of Denial,” was broadcast nationwide. This report, which was 100 minutes longer than “Disability, USA,” put together facts on the head injury “crisis” which had either been unreported or underreported previously. And despite the refusal of the NFL officials to agree to interviews for the report, I thought “League of Denial” did a good job presenting the different sides of the story, especially with respect to the science of concussions.

If you are from Pittsburgh and/or are a Steelers fan, you did not have to wait long to see that this nationally-broadcast report had a heavy local angle to it. Interestingly, the Pittsburgh PBS affiliate ran its own 28-minute special (“Concussions: A New Way of Thinking”) two nights later, focusing on local high school boy and girl athletes who suffered from, and were treated for, head injuries. In my opinion, while “League of Denial” could have the effect that was most feared by the NFL – parents rethinking whether to allow their kids to play American football – the WQED special blindsided me by downplaying near the end any need for increased parental safety and health concern.

At my press time (Friday afternoon) it looked like the NFL had a completely different but much more immediate health (and legal) matter to be concerned about.

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E:60 on ESPN

Last Sunday’s story of the connection between ex-NFL player Steve Gleason and rock band Pearl Jam was a real jolt to the heart. Gleason, 36, is fighting ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), which I hope meets everyone’s definition of a “true disability.” He has been a fan of Seattle-formed Pearl Jam since he was a teenager growing up in Washington state, but this 7-minute report is about more than football and music.

I alluded to two Pearl Jam songs in last week’s PSL, which I wrote before I knew about the ESPN report. I did, of course, know weeks ago that Pearl Jam was opening its latest tour at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh Friday night. And I read one more PSL-worthy story about Pearl Jam, Pittsburgh and sports at the P-G website Wednesday.

But I will save that for next week.

The Panic Street Lawyer is a personal opinion column by attorney Jay Hornack. Contact him right here at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow Jay on Twitter: @panicstlawyer

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