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Calling out Coburn at WCRI

Some WCRI attendees thought my public criticism of former Republican Sen. Tom Coburn (OK) was inappropriate (many did not).

Here’s why I called him out.

First, in talking about disability, Coburn asserted that SSDI – Social Security Disability Income – participation has exploded due to Democratic policies and politics. He said 25 million Americans are now covered by SSDI.  That is flat-out wrong.

I questioned him publicly about his figure, asking where he got it.  He immediately backtracked, saying it may be 22 or 25 million.  I responded that, according to a quick google search, the actual number was less than 15 million.

Coburn had blamed the opposition party for a huge growth in SSDI that NEVER HAPPENED.  He either made up the number of SSDI beneficiaries, was misled, or lied.

The real number, according to expert Yonatan Benshalom of Mathematica, is 9.8 million. Yonatan’s source is here. [Thanks Yonatan]

Why this matters

If Coburn’s false claim was allowed to stand, many in the audience may have left WCRI believing it.  As policymakers, regulators, and thought leaders in workers comp, they would then have perpetuated the myth.  That would lead to wrong decisions, lousy policy, and “solutions” for problems that don’t exist. For example, lawmakers may have sought legislation requiring an MSA-type allocation to indemnify SSDI for occupational disability from work comp insurers.

A more complex issue involves Coburn’s false assertion that the ACA was rammed thru “without any Republican input.” I noted that:

  • The ACA’s core design came from the conservative Heritage Foundation
  • The Gang of Six – half Dems, half Reps, met multiple times while ACA was being written – the Republicans were Enzi, Snowe, and Grassley, all of whom dropped out of the Gang under pressure from Republican Minority Leader McConnell.
  • As a results of those meetings and other dialogue, multiple components of ACA were added or changed in an effort to garner Republican support including:
    • removal of any public option
    • addition of the Cadillac Tax
    • reduction of the penalty for uninsurance
    • removal of funding requirement for abortion services
    • allowance for “religious” health insurance

Responding to my statements, Coburn said since he “was there”, he knew more about this than I did.  He said was part of the Gang of Six – which he wasn’t.  He WAS involved in a previous version of the “Gang” that dealt with tax reform –– but he was not involved in the Gang’s healthcare discussions. [I was peripherally involved via discussions with Congressional staffers and a meeting with Sen Ron Wyden (D OR) about reform]

There are many sources that refute Coburn’s false statements; here’s one.

For those interested in the real story, an excerpt:

[Senate Finance Committee] Chairman Max Baucus (D MT), in the spring of 2009, signaled his desire to find a bipartisan compromise, working especially closely with Grassley, his dear friend and Republican counterpart, who had been deeply involved in crafting the Republican alternative to Clintoncare. Baucus and Grassley convened an informal group of three Democrats and three Republicans on the committee, which became known as the “Gang of Six.” They covered the parties’ ideological bases; the other GOPers were conservative Mike Enzi of Wyoming and moderate Olympia Snowe of Maine, and the Democrats were liberal Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and moderate Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Baucus very deliberately started the talks with a template that was the core of the 1993-4 Republican [health reform] plan, built around an individual mandate and exchanges with private insurers—much to the chagrin of many Democrats and liberals who wanted, if not a single-payer system, at least one with a public insurance option. Through the summer, the Gang of Six engaged in detailed discussions and negotiations to turn a template into a plan. But as the summer wore along, it became clear that something had changed; both Grassley and Enzi began to signal that participation in the talks—and their demands for changes in the evolving plan—would not translate into a bipartisan agreement.What became clear before September, when the talks fell apart, is that Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell had warned both Grassley and Enzi that their futures in the Senate would be much dimmer if they moved toward a deal with the Democrats that would produce legislation to be signed by Barack Obama. They both listened to their leader. An early embrace by both of the framework turned to shrill anti-reform rhetoric by Grassley—talking, for example, about death panels that would kill grandma—and statements by Enzi that he was not going to sign on to a deal.

The false narrative that Democrats rammed thru ACA without any Republican involvement has become accepted fact by many who haven’t read anything but headlines. Coburn’s false statements perpetuated that nonsense, and he deserved to be called out publicly for them.

There’s a bigger problem here – ideological blinders worn by some make it seemingly impossible for those individuals to accept facts. Fact-free discussions, or, even worse, decisions based on beliefs that are the opposite of reality lead to bad public policy.

What does this mean for you?

The people who attend WCRI are enormously influential in our little industry.   They will determine the future of workers’ comp, how employees are treated and who will pay for that treatment.

They deserve to hear the truth.

PS – to the several anonymous commenters – as I’ve stated here numerous times, I don’t publish anonymous comments from cowards afraid to identify themselves.

10 thoughts on “Calling out Coburn at WCRI”

  1. It would seem that “alternative facts” has even reached the workers’ comp industry now as well.

    Coburn is just one part of a vast right-wing conspiracy to take the US back to a time when comp, health care, unemployment and other social programs did not exist, and to a time when business ran roughshod over the lives of working men and women.

    Their lies, obfuscations, misdirections, half-truths and deceptions have worked for many years very successfully, but I think it is finally coming to an end. People are fed up with the BS, and you, Joe are right to call him out on it, just as much as the media should and some are doing to #45.

    The Women’s March, the airport protests and others that are planned signify that people are no longer willing to be lied to by our political leaders, least of all, Republicans.

    Keep up the good work, Joe. As I will on my end.

  2. First, I am generally annoyed by the Q/A period at WCRI as too many use it to give a speech instead of asking a question. That is always a problem with live Q/A.

    Joe, we have known each other for many years and I have respect for you and your opinions, even when I don’t always agree with them. However, in my opinion your attack on Colburn (and it was an attack) was both inappropriate and unprofessional. Those two speakers were asked to be there, and probably compensated. It is not your place to argue with the keynote speakers. If someone needed to call out Colburn, that was Waxman’s role.

    Waxman didn’t do this because he really appeared unprepared for the topics at hand. He was more concerned with repeatedly plugging his consulting firm. Heck, Waxman kept calling it “workMANS” compensation.

    If you felt the need to “fact check” the speakers then use your blog for that purpose. But please do not embarrass the conference organizers, the speakers, and the audience by engaging in a politically motivated argument with the speakers. You are better than that.

    1. Mark – we will have to agree to disagree.

      They are also professionals and adults and should expect to be treated as such, including being held to task for misstatements. If they aren’t comfortable being confronted with their misstatements or if their feelings were hurt then perhaps they should not agree to these events. People paid money to attend and travel to the event, and that investment in time and money should be respected by all speakers with truthful and well-researched presentations.

      My questioning of Coburn was not “politically motivated”. It was “honesty motivated.”

      Coburn was the one who made multiple politically-charged statements, including inappropriately blaming Dems for SSDI increases and mischaracterizing the ACA passage process. I called him on those for the reasons enumerated in the post. My comments were NOT political but completely factual.

      I asked Coburn two questions – where did you get your data on SSDI, noting data I found was different?, and why would Dems work with Republicans when they didn’t work w Dems in 2009?

      The time and place to call people on misstatements intentional or otherwise is when they make those statements. Coburn either intentionally or unintentionally misled the audience at least twice. I have been confronted w corrections during and after presentations; the appropriate response is to admit when you are wrong and acknowledge it.

      I’d note that no one has said my corrections to the record were wrong, or that Coburn’s misstatements were actually correct.

      One wonders if you and others would be calling on me to remain silent if this had been Michael Grabell spouting his nonsense about the evils of work comp.

  3. Joe, you are a great and devoted man. I remain a fan.
    In my view, participation in SSDI greatly to moderately increased under the last administration. The eligibility parameters were relaxed. SSDI, in my view, was supposed to be a fall-back benefit for catastrophically injured and truly disabled folks. I believe that changed to incorporate and pay lots of questionable and dubious claims.

    In the hope we, as taxpayers, can continue to afford the benefits, I hope they make the standards for SSDI strongly and more certain.

  4. Joe, I found your response to the efforts by some people who use the current propaganda playbook of distortion & disinformation to be objective, fact based & not personal. And thanks for your efforts to challenge that the info being provided Is fact based to ensure all parties can then make accurate informed opinions. That said, I hope for more rational evidenced based approaches to the health care & SSDI benefit systems that do not cost shift & burden our tax system.

  5. I was at the presentation, I liked the give and take at the beginning but then felt it devolved into each of the participant’s party talking points.

    I too just did some “fact checking” SSI as a total program pays 8.15 million people a month (as of January 2016) of that, 62.7% or 5.11 million receive benefits as a result of disability – this number also can include, not just physically disabled, but those with mental, cognitive and physical disabilities – many since birth. The remaining 3.04 million are widows, orphans and disabled under 18 (again, think kids with severe mental, cognitive or physical disabilities)

    I have to admit, I have been enticed by some of the headline reports that “20% of all men 25-54 are out of the workforce and receiving benefits” it pays to dig a bit.

    Here is a link to the report.

    1. Brandon’s link is to the annual SSI report, not SSDI – two different things.

      SSDI participation increased ~20% increase during the last administration. Not hard info to find on the Social security website. I’ll leave it to the readers to determine whether or not this is significant and the reasons for the growth.

      If you add SSI and SSDI the total number of participants is ~18.5M. (+17% during the last admin)

      Keep in mind that if your on SSDI your most likely on Medicare, so increases in SSDI / SSI result in a one-to-one increase in Medicare participation.

      1. Mike
        Thanks for the correction. coburn was referring to SSDI; looks like Yonatan’s number of 9.8 million is the right one.

        I’ll check on reasons for ssdi changes. If you have any insights love to hear them.

        1. Joe,

          Absolutely nothing to back this but off the top of my head I’d look at:

          – underemployment
          – aged work force
          – relaxed definition of “disability” which (to be honest, and its hard for me to admit) started with Reagan and has continued
          – changes ie. increase in benefits

          Probably a combination of all of these things as well as many others I’m missing.

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Joe Paduda is the principal of Health Strategy Associates




A national consulting firm specializing in managed care for workers’ compensation, group health and auto, and health care cost containment. We serve insurers, employers and health care providers.



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