LIRR goes on disability

Regulatory capture at its finest:  the LIRR seems to have become less a means to run commuter trains than a source of easy retirement for its workers:

In the years before the investigators arrived, the Long Island office of the Railroad Retirement Board had been a beacon to employees of the Long Island Rail Road, offering the prospect of a comfortable retirement, complete with a pension and disability payments -- all at an age when people in other industries were still working.

As word spread that disability payments were easy to get, L.I.R.R. workers trooped up to the office, hundreds at first and eventually thousands, all filing papers to begin the process of securing early retirement on disability.

Now, the retirement board's Long Island office, in Westbury, is attracting attention for another reason: It is the epicenter of major state and federal investigations into the legitimacy of many of those disability awards.

Of particular interest to investigators is a small group of disability consultants and physicians who have helped the L.I.R.R. attain the dubious distinction of having the nation's highest rate of disabled retirees even while it was earning awards for employee safety. The New York Times reported in September that nearly all of the railroad's career employees retire early and file for disability.

One consultant, Marie T. Baran, ran the board's Long Island office until she quit two years ago and began selling advice to rail workers on how to navigate the system of which she had been a part. Other disability advisers are prominent former union leaders, including one who once represented labor on the board of the L.I.R.R.'s parent agency, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Government investigators are particularly interested in learning why L.I.R.R. retirees tend to use the same physicians, while citing the same ailments in numbers far out of line with other railroads. Investigators have issued dozens of subpoenas to consultants, doctors and retirees, among others.

None of the investigating agencies have accused the consultants or doctors of any wrongdoing.

There are other explanations for the Long Island Rail Road's high number of disability cases, including an unusual labor contract that allows many longtime workers to retire with a company pension as early as age 50. By combining that pension with tens of thousands of dollars in federal disability payments, retirees can draw about as much money as they did when they were working.

The federal retirement board, based in Chicago, also encourages disability applications by approving virtually every one it gets, regardless of where it comes from.

Even so, the L.I.R.R. stands apart.

For example, from 2001 through 2007, Metro-North Railroad, which serves commuters north of New York City, had 32 cases of disabling arthritis or rheumatism, compared with 753 at the L.I.R.R, which has a work force of similar size and composition.

Since 1990, the disability rate among career employees at the L.I.R.R. nearly doubled, reaching a high of 97 percent in 2004 -- a rate three times that of the average railroad, records show. Since 2000, retired L.I.R.R. workers have collectively received a quarter of a billion dollars in federal disability payments.

Perhaps oddly, I actually feel sorry for some of the workers and their enablers.  I imagine that a cultural norm built up slowly, so that by the time the later retirees faked disability, they thought of themselves as fulfilling an implicit contract, rather than defrauding the taxpayers.  Not an unreasonable belief, considering that it is simply impossible that management didn't know what was going on.

But then, I doubt the government will go after them.  They'll get the doctors, the officials, the consultants, but the people who actually committed the fraud?  Time consuming and unpopular.