The Drake's Take

In this case, the feds really are our enemy

— June 4, 2013

Brian Moyer is looking for some justice from the federal government, and he doesn’t plan to stop until he gets some.

It’s not justice for himself he’s seeking; It’s for his late wife, Tina, and all those who find themselves in the same sad situation she was in before she died.

Kerry Drake

Tina, a 52-year-old Rawlins woman, had worked in the food industry since she was 16, but could no longer continue to do so after she was diagnosed with terminal lung and bone cancer in November 2011. Two days later, she applied for the Social Security disability benefits she had earned.

She was approved by the program, but never received her benefits. She died less than three months later in January 2012, and Social Security rules require a five-month waiting period, even if someone has medical proof that he or she is terminally ill and has only a short time to live.

If the applicant lives past the five months, the government will cut a check to cover that period, too. But many don’t make it to the feds’ deadline to live, so their families only receive a “death benefit” of $255.

Brian said his wife was stunned when he told her about the rule, which was explained to him by a staff member of U.S. Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo). He was informed it was designed as an anti-fraud measure, so the government doesn’t end up paying Social Security benefits to people who do not have long-term disabilities. In most cases if one’s disability is short-term because of impending death, the person — who already has to battle a terminal health problem — is simply stuck in the middle of a process that totally ignores the reality of his or her plight.

Tina made Brian promise her that after she was gone, he would continue to fight this thoughtless rule. Yes, the money — she would have received an estimated $754 per month — would have helped cover a few of their bills. But it was the principle she was concerned about: Tina worked all of her life, and now when she was entitled to the benefits that were promised to her, they were needlessly withheld. She said while it was too late for her family, she wanted to help protect others from being “blindsided” by a provision that makes absolutely no sense.

Her husband agreed, and has been waging a campaign he calls the “Good Fight” to bring attention to the problem so Congress will fix it. What began as a one-man effort has picked up some support along the way, but Moyer said he realizes he faces a huge uphill battle to get the rule changed.

“This is a cold, calculated move by the government,” he said of the Social Security Administration and its rule. “They’re betting that people will die before they have to pay anything out. To me, that’s unconscionable.”

There are plenty of reasons why many Wyoming residents hate the federal government, though some are conspiracy theory-driven and seem like a stretch. Several studies have consistently shown that compared to the amount of money the state gives to Washington, it gets back considerably more through services the feds help provide. The government isn’t always the enemy.

But it should be crystal clear to everyone, regardless of political party or philosophy, that keeping money that dying people earned and need in the final months of  their  lives is wrong. Moyer holds the moral high ground here, and if he needs to shame lawmakers into doing the right thing, so be it. Why not hit them over the head with this issue until they change the rule?

He told people in Barrasso’s office that he was going to be there so often that they would cringe whenever they saw him. He said, in somewhat cruder language, that he was going to be in their face until this problem was fixed. He told the same thing to the senator when he spoke to him on the phone, and Moyer said Barrasso’s response was, “Good — we need it.”

Moyer said he went to Barrasso first because as a doctor, he figured the senator would understand that terminally ill patients don’t need any additional stress in their lives. He described Barrasso as the most interested member of Wyoming’s congressional delegation, but said Sen. Mike Enzi and Rep. Cynthia Lummis, both Republicans, are also on board with his cause.

Barrasso sent Moyer an email on April 15 that noted the effort in the U.S. House by Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) to pass a resolution that would eliminate the five-month waiting period. H.R. 160, the Disability Benefit Fairness Act of 2013, is a measure that Barrasso said deserves careful review. Enzi, in his own email to Moyer, said exempting the terminally ill from the rule could “very well be included” in Social Security reform that he and others in the Senate are working on.

Moyer, though, would like to see his state’s senators take the lead on this issue and offer a companion bill to McIntyre’s House resolution. On his own, Moyer — who recently moved to Jackson and remarried — has been calling and leaving messages for members of Congress throughout the country. With the exception of Wyoming’s delegation and McIntyre, he said, no one else has even bothered to call him back. He said one senator’s aide told him not to expect a response, since his boss didn’t represent him. “I told him, ‘What — people don’t die in your state?’” Moyer recounted.

And while precisely how many people such legislation would impact isn’t known, Moyer reasoned that it has to be significant, given that many people each year are diagnosed with aggressive forms of cancer and other diseases that take their lives quickly. There is some supplemental relief available, but only for those with extremely low incomes.

Moyer’s cause has been gaining some attention as he brings the issue to light by talking to any reporter who will listen. Several people have contacted him, saying they found themselves in exactly the position the Moyers encountered when they lost their own loved one.

Chris Icenogle of Casper has reached out to Moyer after the death of his 51-year-old wife, Mellody, on April 21 after her battle with cancer. He has offered to do anything he can to help, Moyer related, but noted his new friend is also in the process of grieving.

Mellody Icenogle worked for Hilltop National Bank and also served as a volunteer firefighter, emergency medical technician and American Heart Association instructor.

In an introductory email to Moyer, Icenogle said his wife would have been outraged that because she didn’t make it to the five-month mark after being accepted for Social Security disability benefits, only $255 was awarded in a lump-sum payment to her family as a death benefit.

“She would have felt that this was a slap in the face,” Icenogle wrote. “She worked hard all her life, and raised two beautiful children and my wonderful son.”

Moyer, who moved to Wyoming from Michigan several years ago because job prospects here were better, successfully lobbied the Michigan Senate to pass a resolution urging Congress to change the eligibility requirements for Social Security benefits for the terminally ill. A similar effort sponsored by Rep. Donald Burkhart (R-Rawlins) and Sen. Larry Hicks (R-Baggs) was passed unanimously by the Wyoming House Labor, Health and Social Services Committee, but it died when it failed to reach the House floor for debate.

While lobbying for that resolution, Moyer learned that Tim Arradondo of Sinclair, a co-worker at the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlins, had died on Feb. 10 due to cancer while he was stuck in the five-month waiting period for benefits.

His widow, Terry Arradondo, said she also thinks it’s shameful that the federal government burdens people with having to fight for benefits they’ve earned while trying to deal with a terminal illness. “You’re not in the condition to do anything,” she said. “You’re in shock. It’s not right, and I’m grateful for Brian for doing everything he can to bring this to the public’s attention. I don’t think that many people know about this rule, or think that it might affect them.”Moyer said he’s going to keep the “Good Fight” alive as long as he lives, and if the rule isn’t passed by the time he dies, his nieces and nephews have promised to take up the battle on behalf of their aunt and uncle.

“I come from a long line of fighters,” Moyer said. “My brother said, ‘They don’t know who they’re messing with. Brian is like a junkyard dog or a pit bull.’”

The feds are on notice; Brian Moyer is going to keep his promise to Tina. Given the stubbornness and crazed partisanship of Congress these days, it could take several generations of Moyer’s relatives to get it done.

The question that remains is, “Why should this be so difficult?” If the House and Senate can agree on anything, this should be the issue that stops their bickering and brings them together. They should do it quickly, without endless debates and filibusters, if only to prove to the American public that they aren’t really the heartless dolts most of us believe they are. Push it through now, before more terminal Tinas, Tims and Mellodys have to spend their final, precious time dealing with a bureaucracy that seems wholly unconcerned about promises, principles and integrity — to the shame of us all.

— Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake is the editor-in-chief of The Casper Citizen, a nonprofit, online community newspaper. It can be viewed at www.caspercitizen.com.

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Kerry Drake

Veteran Wyoming journalist Kerry Drake has covered Wyoming for more than four decades, previously as a reporter and editor for the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle and Casper Star-Tribune. He lives in Cheyenne and...

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2 Comments

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  1. The GOtP have been trying to dismantle Social Security since it’s inception, to believe our own lawmakers want to help is questionable at best, I am not saying they are not empathetic to these people, it is just not what they believe. Social programs designed to benefit the average citizen, even though we pay into these programs ourselves are viewed as ‘gasp’ Socialism. If you truly want to change the system, change our lawmakers to ones that believe in people like us, instead of the 1% who are quite capable of caring for themselves.

  2. You wrote in your column that: If the applicant lives past the five months, the government will cut a check to cover that period, too. That is not accurate. My husband was diagnosed with Terminal cancer in May 2007. He was given 3 – 6 months to live. Fortunately, he lived 16 months… He was immediately approved for Social Security Disability but was told he had to wait 5 months to get any payments. From May to November he qualified for $1.00 of Social Security and he received Medicaid.. yes.. I said $1.00. When the payments for Disability finally kicked in, he did NOT receive any payments for the previous 5 months. We were told that they do not provide back payments, that when your benefits kick in after 5 months, you just get the monthly check.. nothing more… If not for his family we would have lost everything we owned… we were lucky… what about those that don’t have any help. It’s rediculous that people have to wait for disability! We were told that if someone has ALS they would get their benefits immediately…not sure if that is true or not but it’s pretty rediculous if it is!