PRESTONSBURG, Ky. — The federal government will restore Social Security disability payments to hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky whose checks were suspended pending a review of their eligibility, easing fears of economic ruin for many families.
U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican who represents the region, announced the decision Thursday.
Rogers had met with several Social Security officials Wednesday and asked them to lift the agency’s earlier decision to suspend benefits, citing the hardship it would cause.
The move to suspend checks could have left hundreds of people in Eastern Kentucky with little or no income for a year or more.
That had caused fears about people not being able to afford food or medicine or losing their homes. The loss of benefits might even have played a role in three suicides.
During his meeting with Social Security officials, “I was rather blunt that this is a matter of life and death,” Rogers said.
The acting administrator of the Social Security Administration, Carolyn Colvin, called him Thursday to confirm that the agency would restore disability payments to people who received notice last month about being suspended.
About 900 people got the notices. Most of them live in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia.
Rogers said he didn’t know exactly when checks would go out, but he thought it would be within days.
“I’m elated,” Rogers said. He had been worried about the potential for more suicides, he said. “This is an enormous relief to me. I’m overjoyed for the recipients who will now be able to afford medicine and food.”
Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf, who is helping represent people in the issue, said Rogers’ successful request to restore benefits to people ranked as an accomplishment worthy of the memory of Carl D. Perkins. The Democrat from Knott County represented Eastern Kentucky in the U.S. House for more than 30 years, using his post to push for improved education, mine safety and programs to help poor people.
“He acted like Carl D. Perkins today,” Pillersdorf said of Rogers. “In my view, that’s the highest compliment you can give to a Kentucky politician.”
The suspensions affected former clients of Floyd County lawyer Eric C. Conn.
The Social Security Administration notified 900 people that their payments had been suspended because of suspicion that the cases Conn submitted for them included fraudulent information from four doctors.
The SSA is going through a process to redetermine eligibility for disability benefits on about 1,500 former clients of Conn.
The 600 who were not immediately suspended receive a different form of disability benefit called Supplemental Security Income.
A U.S. Senate investigation released in 2013 included allegations that Conn’s firm submitted medical evidence from doctors who did not properly examine some claimants and that Conn improperly colluded with David B. Daugherty, a Social Security judge who rubber-stamped benefits for Conn’s clients with little scrutiny.
A spokeswoman for the SSA said the agency has to make a new determination of a person’s eligibility for disability benefits when there is reason to suspect that fraud was involved in the earlier application.
However, there is no evidence that Conn’s clients knew about or took part in alleged fraud, according to a lawsuit that Pillersdorf and other attorneys filed for the people who lost benefits.
Conn’s attorney said he did nothing wrong in representing people and that the government should not have cut off payments to his former clients.
By Bill Estep