Despicable: '60 Minutes' Does Another Hit Job on Social Security

CBS News and 60 Minutes love carrying water for Republicans in their ongoing war on Social Security. In the fall of 2013, it was Sen. Tom Coburn's (R-OK) attack on Social Security disability, in which the news magazine presented an entire segment without talking to one single disabled person or disability advocate and declared that the program was "a secret welfare system ... ravaged by waste and fraud." In that case, the program previewed sham report Coburn was releasing. This weekend, they did it again, previewing a Senate hearing on the Social Security Administration's massive database, the "Death Master File," touting the possibilities for fraud and abuse if someone was either incorrectly reported dead or the converse, died and didn't show up on the file.


The LA Times' indispensable Michael Hiltzik details all the things that reporter Scott Pelley and 60 Minutes bungled in this story, errors that were compounded in the Senate hearing it previewed. Among them the basic starting point that this isn't the fault of the Social Security Administration, at all.

Numerous studies by its own inspector general and the Government Accountability Office suggest that for the Social Security Administration to verify every report it receives of 2.8 million American deaths per year would be a Herculean job.

Why? Because those reports arrive from thousands of sources of varying reliability across the country--funeral directors, family members, banks, Medicare and Veterans Affairs offices, post offices. Social Security considers the most reliable source to be electronic death records from the states, but only 35 states submit these to the agency. […]

"60 Minutes" wrung its hands over the nation's inability to compile totally accurate data on deaths. Pelley illustrated the issue by visiting Alabama's Vital Records Vault, "a place so secure that you need a key and a fingerprint to get inside....But once in here, the technology becomes pretty 19th century." He brandished a folder crammed with old papers. "These are death certificates from 1912, for example," he said in dismay.

Egads! What were those 1912 people thinking, relying on paper to report deaths?!?!? Did Pelley have any idea how maybe the Social Security Administration could possibly fund taking all those records from 1912, for example, and digitizing them? Of course not. As it turns out, the actual waste, fraud, and abuse occurring because of the difficulties in keeping track of dead people in the actual Social Security system of payments is pretty insignificant in the scheme of things, and in fact "the problem of improper payments by government agencies has absolutely nothing to do with the Death Master List. Beryl H. Davis of the GAO testified that her agency identified $124.7 billion in improper payments for fiscal 2014. Of that, the Social Security Administration accounted for $3 billion."

Solutions from either 60 Minutes or the Senate panel having this hearing weren't at all the focus. For example, many of the problems reported were because of credit agencies relying solely on this file that the SSA explicitly "does not guarantee the veracity of." Private companies using this file should be required to verify the information before wrecking someone's credit rating. Or perhaps Congress could restore funding to the SSA, which it has drastically cut, to give the Agency the capacity to keep the list more accurate. But neither 60 Minutes nor the Republican Senate is interested in accuracy or in keeping Social Security strong.

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