Last week, the United States Department of Justice released a scathing report accusing the Puerto Rican police —the nation’s second largest police force— of serious abuse and civil rights violations. Now, the island’s federal woes continue, as The Wall Street Journal reported today about serious fraud charges and Social Security disability claims. As the article states:
© United Press International Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll
The inspector general, Patrick O’Carroll, told an audience at an Aug. 30 disability-examiners conference that the investigation was tied to a pharmaceutical plant that recently closed in Puerto Rico, with 300 employees losing their jobs.
Shortly after the layoff, 290 of the 300 former employees applied for Social Security disability benefits and they all used the same doctor, who lived far from the plant, Mr. O’Carroll told the audience. Mr. O’Carroll didn’t identify the doctor, whose identity couldn’t be learned.
Jonathan Lasher, an assistant inspector general at the agency, wouldn’t comment on the case, but said, “The office of the inspector general is continuing to pursue any number of fraud allegations in Puerto Rico related to the Social Security disability program.”
The investigation comes as part of a stepped-up presence in the U.S. commonwealth by the inspector general’s office following a March article in The Wall Street Journal that showed how much easier it is to win Social Security disability benefits on the Caribbean island compared with any of the 50 U.S. states.
In 2010, the Social Security Administration awarded benefits in 63.4% of its initial decisions in Puerto Rico, compared with much lower rates elsewhere. In Arizona, for example, benefits were awarded in initial applications in 35.6% of the cases. Nine of the 10 top U.S. zip codes for workers collecting Social Security disability benefits are in Puerto Rico, according to government data.
A spokesman for the Social Security Administration said in light of “statistical trends” in Puerto Rico it has asked the inspector general’s office to “make sure that these trends do not reflect an increase in fraud.”
The article continues:
Even though SSDI is a federal program funded by payroll taxes, initial decisions about whether someone qualifies are made by state officials because of the way the program is designed. Officials in the Puerto Rican government promised full cooperation with the probe.
“We strongly support the effort to investigate this case and any incident of abuse, and will partner with federal officials to eliminate fraud in not only the disability program, but in other federal health programs like Medicare and Medicaid,” Lorenzo Gonzalez, Puerto Rico’s secretary of health, said in a written statement. “As with any other federal investigation involving fraud with a federal program, if a physician is found to be performing unlawfully, we will move swiftly at the local level through the state licensing board to take whatever action is needed to halt the abuse.”
Mr. Gonzalez said these incidents “are not unique to Puerto Rico” and show the need for “standardized, clear cut guidelines” in determining how benefits are awarded.
Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate was 15.5% in July, higher than the 9.1% national average.
For those who have lived and worked on the island for decades, Puerto Rico has had an anecdotal history of abusing federal handouts and claims. The recent actions by the federal government confirm that the island’s economic relationship with the United States is being challenged and questioned, in light of the economic problems the federal government is facing.