GAO Issues Report To House Committee on Transportation Regarding FAA’s Issuance of Medical Certification Decisions

The Government Accountability Office issued a report to the Chairman of the U.S House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure entitled “FAA Has Taken Steps to Determine That It Has Made Correct Medical Certification Decisions” on September 30, 2008.

In 2005, a joint investigation known as “Operation Safe Pilot” was conducted by the Department of Transportation Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Administration’s Office of Inspector General, and California’s U.S. Attorney Office.  That investigation revealed that the FAA had issued medical certificates to a small percentage of pilots who had disqualifying medical conditions that they did not report on their medical certification applications.  Calling some of the medical certificate cases “egregious,” the DOT IG stated that 45 individuals identified as having falsified their certificates were prosecuted criminally as a result of the investigation.

In March, 2007, the House Committee issued a report showing that a significant number of pilots were flying with fraudulent medical certificates and asked the GAO to assess FAA’s efforts for screening medical certification applicants and identifying medically unqualified pilots.  The Report published on September 30, 2008, is the result of that request.

In sum, the GAO reported that the FAA has developed programs to help it determine whether it has properly issued medical certificates.  In particular, the FAA has instituted two quality assurance review programs, one to evaluate certificate that the Aviation Medical Examiners issued and a second to evaluate certificate decisions made by FAA application examiners.  In addition, the FAA checks each pilot applicant against the National Driver Register to look for drug- and alcohol-related motor vehicle actions and indications of substance abuse.

However, due to “recently resolved litigation,” the FAA currently does not check federal disability benefits databases for indications that pilots may have disqualifying medical conditions.  The GAO’s analysis of the Social Security Administration’s disability databases found that 1,246 of the 394,985 medically certified pilots were receiving disability benefits.  Since this was the crux of the DOT IG’s “Safe Pilot” investigation, the GAO’s recommendation that “federal disability data bases can provide useful information on potentially disqualifying medical conditions” is a bit of an understatement.  That being said, the GAO correctly points out that just because a pilot is receiving disability benefits does not automatically mean that they are medically unfit to fly.

On September 26, 2008, Chairman James Oberstar (D-Minn.) issued a press release stating that although he was pleased that progress is being made, the fact that there are still medical certificates being issued to unfit applicants is troubling.  “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.”

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