SPECIAL REPORT: Families cut off from disability benefits
PRESTONSBURG, KY —
Dozens of families living in Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia who rely on disability payments to survive have been cut off. They are casualties in a legal battle between the federal government and an attorney facing federal indictment.
"Electric bill - $865," said Donna Dye of Minnie, Kentucky. These days for her family, making ends meet every month has taken on new meaning since she was laid off from her job last year.
"I just want to try and hold it together for them so they don't worry. I can worry. Not them," said Donna. Donna's husband Tim has been on disability since 2011. They trusted attorney Eric Conn to file the disability paperwork with the government. "They was cut off from what I can see because Eric C. Conn had apparently some crooked doctors and they did not turn in all of my husband's medical records," said Donna.
Now Conn is facing charges, accused of filing hundreds of millions of dollars in fraudulent disability claims. The federal government cut off the benefits to all of his clients until the Social Security Administration sorts it out. Those caught in the middle like the Dye's have to re-apply for disability and may be forced to pay back more than $100,000 in benefits.
Donna says homelessness could be around the corner for her family. "Not far if I cannot come up with some house payments," said Donna, adding her family is dealing with the situation day by day.
"Your doctor's office was in his office," said Cheryl Martin who also had her disability benefits cut off. She recently received a letter from the federal government. "I was going to have to pay back $74,000 that they are saying was paid to me fraudulently,' said Cheryl.
"The Social Security Administration admits there is zero evidence that any of these clients had any knowledge of any fraud," said Prestonsburg attorney Ned Pillersdorf. He's one of dozens of attorneys across the country volunteering their services to represent folks like Cheryl Martin and Tim Dye in re-determination hearings to get their disability benefits re-instated.
"Every hearing that goes on the hearings begin with judge saying any doctor or tests that doctors did that Conn utilized are inadmissible. Can't even talk about them," said Pillersdorf.
A federal judge has ruled some had their benefits wrongly denied, but there's a pending motion to hold the Social Security Administration in contempt because they have not re-instated those benefits. "We've had a number of suicides, and frankly we're witnessing the social disintegration of Floyd and Pike County and Mingo County, West Virginia. I don't know what these people are going to do without benefits for 6, 8 months while we continue to challenge this in federal court," said Pillersdorf.
"If we loose in court, then I am going to give up. I'm not going to fight it anymore," said Donna who remains optimistic, ready to face the challenges of whatever decision is made head-on.
Eric Conn has been indicted on charges of mail and wire fraud and destruction of records. His trial is set for June in federal court in Lexington.