GAO: FAA Weeding Out False Medicals

 - November 4, 2008, 4:13 AM

A late September report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said the FAA is making progress in its policing of pilots’ medical certificates, but the chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure still has some reservations about the overall program.

The committee requested the GAO report after its own investigation revealed gaps in the FAA’s ability to oversee and enforce the certification program. The committee’s report, released in March last year, showed that a significant number of pilots were flying with fraudulent medical certificates. An earlier report by the Department of Transportation Inspector General termed some of the cases “egregious.”

Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.), chairman of the committee, said last year that a significant number of certified pilots had lied about serious medical conditions to get a pilot certificate, but the FAA has failed to stem this practice.

Following the release of the GAO report, he praised the FAA for taking the issue seriously and showing progress in addressing the “widespread” problem. “However, the GAO report shows that the agency relies heavily on the ‘honor system,’ and it lacks the resources to thoroughly evaluate medical certificate applications,” Oberstar cautioned.

According to the GAO study, the FAA has developed a multi-step process for evaluating medical certificate applications. Nonetheless, the report shows that the agency issued medical certificates to a number of unfit applicants due to errors by the examining physician, the FAA’s computer process or clerical handling.

“Progress is good, but progress must lead to a goal,” Oberstar said. “In this case, the goal should be 100-percent certainty that certificates are not obtained fraudulently or erroneously. Perhaps that is an impossible goal, but it should be our goal nonetheless.”

During a 2005 investigation in which the DOT IG’s office reviewed the medical applications of 40,000 Northern California pilots, it found more than 3,200 airmen with current medical certificates who were simultaneously receiving Social Security Administration (SSA) benefits, nearly a quarter of them for medical disability.

The U.S. Attorney’s office prosecuted about 40 cases; Oberstar said it could have pursued hundreds more if its resources had not been constrained. As a result, the Inspector General recommended that the FAA coordinate with the SSA and other disability providers to identify people whose documented medical conditions are inconsistent with sworn statements made to the FAA.

A report by the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s oversight and investigations majority staff identified “widespread” fraud among pilots who hide serious medical conditions from examining physicians to retain medical certification for their licenses. In addition, Oberstar said the FAA’s own researchers have documented hundreds of fatal accidents where pilots failed to disclose potentially disqualifying medical conditions on their airman medical certificate applications.

The GAO said the FAA has developed programs to help it determine whether it has properly issued medical certificates. Specifically, the agency has established two quality-assurance review programs–one evaluating certificates that the AMEs issued and the other evaluating certificate decisions made by FAA application examiners.

According to the GAO, the FAA currently does not check federal disability benefits databases for indications that pilots may have disqualifying medical conditions due to “recently resolved litigation.”

“Although our analysis of the Social Security Administration’s disability databases found that 1,246 of 394,985 medically certified pilots were receiving disability benefits, this does not necessarily mean these pilots do not meet FAA medical standards,” the report acknowledged. “It may, however, indicate that federal disability databases can provide useful information on potentially disqualifying medical conditions.”