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Op-Ed | Congress must stand up to President Trump— disabled Americans are worth something

Photo via Getty Images

By Peter Morley

They say the personal is political, and that’s never been truer than now, with President Trump and his administration.

As a disability patient advocate, I can read all their policy papers they use to justify their actions, but at the end of the day the best way to understand what Donald Trump thinks about the disability community is to see what he witnessed in his own family.

His niece, Mary Trump, gave us this insight with her recent book. In it, she shares a startling story. Her grandmother was upset that Mary and her brother were contesting the family’s estate plans after the death of their father from alcoholism and related health effects. Her upset grandmother said, “Do you know what your father was worth when he died? A whole lot of nothing.”

Fast forward to current times and this family ethos is playing out on the national stage as Americans cope with COVID-19.

The Social Security Administration is proposing final regulations that would allow it to hire appeals judges to hear disability claims that the agency has initially denied. Because these so-called appeals judges would be hired directly by Social Security, there are legitimate fears that they would rule in favor of their bosses, who want to cut the nation’s safety net. These appeals judges will be eligible for performance bonuses; the scales of justice would be tipped in favor to one side.

The current system has worked for over six decades; it involves independent administrative law judges across the U.S. who hear cases from claimants and make impartial disability eligibility decisions based on medical reports and knowledge about occupations and workplaces.

The administration is also trying to increase the number of times a sick or disabled person will have to show his or her condition has remained the same or gotten worse. Social Security thinks more reviews will squeeze out $2 billion in savings over 10 years, yet they have no extra money to hire new staff to conduct these reviews.  Right now, the agency remains under a hiring freeze.

This is occurring as we’re still learning about the disability needs of COVID patients. Doctors say it appears this coronavirus causes long-term damage to the cardiovascular system and heart. It’s been reported that the body’s reaction to the virus can create an inflammatory response that may result in “heart disease and accelerate other heart conditions that would develop later in life.”

There are reports that some patients suffer from reduced lung capacity, leaving them “gasping for air when walking quickly.” We now have instances of reinfection. These will be patients who will not be able to work and will want to pursue disability claims.

I trust our country’s disability system; I paid into it during my working years and I’ve had to rely on it through numerous major health-care crises. Thirteen years ago, I was permanently disabled from an accident and had to undergo four spinal surgeries. In 2011, I survived kidney cancer and fought my way into remission after losing part of my right kidney. In 2013, I was diagnosed with lupus, which causes me severe fatigue; most days it’s a struggle to get out of bed.

I now manage over 10 pre-existing conditions, take nearly 40 medications and rely on self-injections of biologic medication to slow the progression of my diseases.

The House of Representatives just sprung to action when it realized how the Trump administration was trying to dismantle the U.S. Postal Service. But congressional leaders need to understand this type of destruction is also occurring in the Social Security Administration. This is a time for leaders to immediately act.   

It’s not enough to hope in the near future a President Biden will administratively undo Trump’s changes, after they would have caused so much harm; they must be stopped.

The clock is ticking. When they say this is the most important election of our lifetime, I believe them. 

Morley is a patient advocate from New York City; he’s testified many times at congressional hearings regarding his illnesses and federal policies.

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