Sleep is a rare commodity for Daniel Norfleat. The Covington resident typically gets about three to four hours asleep a week.
“And without the sleep, I’m constantly going around in circles, a circle of pain,” said Norfleat, a U.S. Navy veteran.
The 53-year-old takes two dozen pills a day for pain, depression and a severe case of insomnia. The rare moments he does get shut-eye, he’s often woken by the screams of a deadly day serving onboard the U.S.S. Lexington, an air craft carrier.
In 1989, a pilot crashed his plane while trying to land. Five sailors died that day and Norfleat hasn’t been able to shake the image from his mind.
“We had fires. We had hurt bodies, hurt people,” said Norfleat. “I have a VA psychologist I see and we talk about it.”
In addition to post traumatic stress disorder, Norfleat has suffered a heart attack, a stroke, and knee surgeries.
The Department of Veteran Affairs deemed him “90 percent disabled” and “Unemployable.” In 2015, Social Security approved his disability benefits.
About a year ago, his attorney suggested applying for back pay from the agency for the time he couldn’t work while waiting for approval. When he got his hearing, the Social Security administrative law judge not only denied him the back-pay, she canceled his benefits altogether – saying he was employable.
“They’re both government agencies. So, why wouldn’t one believe the other?” said Norfleat.
Deloris is Norfleat’s wife, “Here’s a man who has 15 doctors, different doctors unassociated with each other, treating him for different situations and every single one of them have concluded that he’s unable to work.”
Marilyn Zahm is the president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. She says the agency doesn’t have to agree with a VA ruling because the two entities use different criteria to determine disability.
“We simply don’t have to explain that the VA system is different than the Social Security system and therefore we don’t give difference to their ultimate determination that an individual is disabled,” said Zahm.
Earlier this year, the agency changed a rule some believe will make it more difficult for veterans seeking Social Security disability benefits.
In the past, when a veteran was deemed unemployable by the VA, Social Security judges were required to explain why they disagreed with the VA’s disability ruling.
Starting this past march, judges are no longer required to do that.
Tim Klob is an attorney who represents veterans. “So, even though the VA may look at the same evidence, and find in some cases unemployability, Social Security does not necessarily take the position that they have to adhere to that,” said Klob.
Klob, an active reservist himself, believes the change will make it more difficult for veterans to appeal denials.
“It doesn’t make sense to me. They should at least address it. You can’t appeal something or challenge something if there’s no language in the decision to address it,” Klob said.
In an email, a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration wrote “we will no longer give any specific evidentiary weight to medical opinions… Instead, we will consider the persuasiveness of medical opinions using the factors specified in our rules.”
“The new rule just makes it clear that we don’t have to put in a lot of verbiage in decisions explaining that we are not bound by the ultimate determination of the VA,” said Zahm.
Social Security says the biggest factors in determining disability is the medical evidence’s supportability and consistency - not relying on a medical opinion, even if it comes from doctors at the VA.
Mr. Norfleat is appealing the latest denial.