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Trainspotter

The Disability Board That Couldn’t Say No

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After learning that most of her career employees were retiring early and getting disability payments, the Long Island Rail Road’s president, Helena E. Williams, set out in October to learn more about the obscure federal agency in Chicago that was dispensing the money, a quarter of a billion dollars since 2000.

 

But when Ms. Williams asked to attend the next meeting of the agency — the federal Railroad Retirement Board, rail workers’ version of Social Security — she got a surprise.

 

The board, with about $34 billion in assets, had not met formally in nearly two years, and no new meeting was scheduled. The three board members, all full-time presidential appointees, rarely met even in private, employees of the agency say.

 

Operating out of public view, with little scrutiny from Congress and even from its former inspector general, the retirement board has become the agency that cannot say no, last year approving virtually every single disability application it received — almost 98 percent. It did not matter where rail employees lived or where they worked.

 

An examination of the board by The New York Times, including dozens of interviews and a review of government records, found a disability program plagued by labor-management infighting, weak standards and a failure to use tests that could better weed out specious disability claims.

 

Since its inception, the board has been so riven with conflicts that it took a half century to update what were supposed to be temporary disability standards, leaving in place until 1998 archaic diagnostic terms like “cretinism,” “imbecility” and “middle-class moronism.” Simply having a “repugnant” scar could qualify someone as disabled.

 

The board’s newer standards have not made much of a difference. Nor has the $10 million the board has spent over the last five years on physician consultants to help evaluate applicants; the approval rate has actually risen since 1965, when it was 96 percent.

 

“It doesn’t require a lot of evidence,” said Dr. Erlinda Berendi, a private contractor who reviews some of the board’s occupational disability decisions.

 

The program’s troubled history includes its former inspector general, William J. Doyle III, who chose to investigate waste, fraud and abuse from his home in Florida, 1,100 miles from the board’s Chicago headquarters, records show. In the early 1990s, Mr. Doyle received thousands of dollars in awards from board members he was supposed to monitor — two are still in office — a practice that has since been outlawed. He later settled accusations of expense account fraud, agreeing to pay the federal government $35,000.

 

If Mr. Doyle’s tenure was unusual, the way he ended his career was not: He retired on a disability, records show.

 

“I found that there had been little oversight of the activities of the board members or the entire agency,” said the current inspector general, Martin J. Dickman, who investigated Mr. Doyle and wrote a report on what he found. “I admit that I had not anticipated the strange circumstances with which I was to be confronted.”

 

The board has failed to heed several of Mr. Dickman’s proposals to make the board work better, including that every disability applicant undergo two medical screenings, rather than one.

 

Investigations Under Way

 

More than a half-dozen state and federal agencies are now investigating the retirement board’s disability payments to former L.I.R.R. employees. In September, two days after The Times published the results of an eight-month investigation that documented those disability payments, federal agents raided the board’s Long Island office.

 

The L.I.R.R.’s disability rate, which since 2000 has ranged between 93 percent and 97 percent for retired career employees, is three to four times that of the average railroad. Workers at other railroads get disabilities just as easily, but they file for them less often because, unlike L.I.R.R. employees, they cannot retire early with a private pension plan to supplement their disability pay.

 

 

Full story: nytimes_logo.gif icon_offsite.png

By WALT BOGDANICH and NICHOLAS PHILLIPS

NEW YORK TIMES

December 15, 2008

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