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Regulatory Brief - Pilot Medical Applications Center of Congressional Investigation

Regulatory Brief: Pilot Medical Applications Center of Congressional Investigation

History of the issue

In July 2003, the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (DOT-OIG) and Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General (SSA-OIG), citing safety and security concerns, initiated a joint investigation to identify pilots misusing Social Security numbers. During the course of the investigation, Social Security records identified individuals who also held FAA medical certificates and who were receiving Social Security (SSA) disability benefits. The DOT-OIG and SSA-OIG launched an 18-month probe termed "Operation Safe Pilot" in coordination with the U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) to look into possible fraudulent activity. The investigation zeroed in on 40,000 pilots residing in northern California. The operation discovered approximately 3,220 pilots with current medical certificates who were collecting SSA benefits, including disability benefits. DOT-OIG and SSA-OIG agents identified 48 pilots receiving full disability benefit payments for an array of illnesses that were medically disqualifying for airman medical certification. This resulted in the U.S. Attorney's Office prosecuting more than 40 cases to date.

Current issue

On March 27, 2007, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) charged the FAA with developing a system to identify fraud and to periodically spot-check medical applications for false information. He also called for a hearing on the subject later this spring.

"AOPA does not condone pilots who make false statements or omit known disqualifying medical conditions on their medical application," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "But we do want to ensure that pilots who make unintentional omissions on the application do not face FAA enforcement actions or criminal charges."

"The issue is not about receiving disability benefits,"said Gary Crump, AOPA's director of medical certification. "The issue is the intentional falsification of medical applications. A pilot who has reported a medical condition for which he receives disability payments on his airman medical application, and the FAA has granted him a medical certificate, has absolutely nothing to worry about."

On July 17, 2007, AOPA President Phil Boyer reiterated that the vast majority of pilots were honest and outlined a cooperative four-point program with the aviation subcommittee and the FAA that could better guard against medically disqualified people fraudulently obtaining medical certificates.

First, the FAA should add a statement to the medical certification application warning pilots that some medical data would be shared with other agencies.

Second, a one-year amnesty program to encourage pilots to report all medical visits and conditions to the FAA.

Third, the FAA should establish a data-sharing program with other public agencies such as the Social Security Administration within the limits permitted by the Privacy Act.

And finally, AOPA would work with the subcommittee and the FAA to educate pilots about properly reporting all pertinent medical information, and about the severe penalties and safety consequences of failing to do so.

Pilot incapacitation extremely rare

The report says that pilots who are physically or mentally unfit pose a danger to themselves, other pilots in the air, and those on the ground.

"Pilot incapacitation is very rare," said Crump, "not only because the FAA has rigorous medical standards, but also because diligent pilots ground themselves if they feel that they cannot safely act as pilot in command."

According to statistics from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, medical incapacitation accounted for .25 percent (that's one-quarter of one percent) of general aviation accidents and 1.03 percent of fatal GA accidents from 1995 to 2004.

AOPA has serious concerns about the methods employed by the DOT-OIG and SSA-OIG in securing and sharing pilot medical records and possible violations of the Privacy Act. AOPA also questions whether the FAA will have adequate personnel to cover the potential increase in medical case review work and the ensuing participation in court proceedings that could result from this investigation. The potential drain on agency personnel resources is likely to adversely affect the FAA's ability to work medical application cases, particularly those more serious cases that require special issuance authorizations.

"AOPA offers many resources to help pilots understand the FAA's medical certification process, including issues involving disqualifying conditions," said Crump.

Time line of events

  • July 2003, "Operation Safe Pilot" launched to identify pilots who were collecting Social Security disability benefits while maintaining an FAA medical certificate.
  • March 2007, FAA charged with developing a system to periodically spot-check medical applications for false information.
  • July 2007, hearing on medical fraud and the FAA's plan to address the issue.

AOPA medical certification experts are available weekdays to help members successfully through the medical process. Simply call 800/872-2672 or e-mail [email protected]. AOPA's interactive TurboMedical online form is an important tool available for pilots to comply with the FAA's safety medical standards.

Updated Thursday, August 16, 2007 5:37:29 AM