Social Security Administration to Implement Major Changes to Disability Insurance

The beneficiary rolls of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program are increasing rapidly, as is public and legislative scrutiny over the process. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is making major changes. A recent article on the Wall Street Journal’s blog outlines six changes currently underway for the SSDI.

Occupations: When considering an applicant for SSDI, the agency must evaluate the applicant’s employment prospects. Currently, it tasks vocational experts to match the applicant with potential occupations. But these experts are supposed to use a “dictionary” of occupations that has not been updated since 1991. It still includes anachronistic occupations like “blacksmith,” and, more importantly, it does not reflect the technology boom of the past twenty years. Numerous jobs working with computers are well-suited to physically disabled individuals. Rewriting the dictionary is a huge job that may not be completed until 2016 at the earliest.

Grid Use: Administrative law judges who rule on SSDI applications use a decision-making tool known as the “grid” to help them decide whether an applicant qualifies for benefits. It accounts for age, education, disability and other factors. But like the occupation dictionary, the grid has not been updated in years, and it does not reflect the ability of some people to work productively into advanced ages. Additionally, some judges believe it is too easy for lawyers and other experts to tailor applications to the grid so that an award of benefits is more likely.

Disclosure: Currently, SSDI attorneys may withhold medical records that weaken a client’s case for disability benefits from submissions. Many believe that this practice should not be allowed, and some claim the SSA has backed down from pressure against implementing a rule against it in the past. An agency official recently stated the SSA would soon propose a rule preventing the withholding of relevant information from applications, but the official would not elaborate on the nature of the proposal.

Caseload: To deal with large case backlogs, some judges have, in recent years, handled upwards of 1,000 cases per year. Many judges claim due diligence on so many cases is impossible. The agency has now placed a cap of approximately 800 cases per year for each judge.

Third-Party Groups: The SSA and its inspector general are investigating whether doctors and lawyers are facilitating fraud in disability applications. This investigation only began recently, and no targets or findings have yet been identified.

Judges’ Job Description: It is very difficult for SSA judges to be removed from their positions. For some, the post amounts to a lifetime appointment. But the agency is changing the job description to clarify that judges are subject to supervision and to oversight from various parties. The SSA has also intensified scrutiny over the judges’ casework and can recommend additional training for those whose results (e.g. the percentage of applications approved) fall outside the norm.

As the SSDI continues to grow, it is important to keep the program modern and to remain vigilant against fraud so that the benefits of future, worthy applicants are not endangered.

Posted on Thursday, January 30th, 2014. Filed under Social Security Disability.

NHTSA Announces 5 to Drive Campaign to Help Parents Instill Safe Driving Habits in Teens

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently announced a new safety campaign to reduce the rate of fatal auto accidents among teenage drivers. The campaign, called “5 to Drive,” encourages parents to discuss one safety topic each day with their teenage children. The five topics are:

  • Refraining from cell phone usage, including text messaging
  • Refraining from carrying passengers
  • Obeying the speed limit
  • Refraining from alcohol consumption
  • Wearing a seat belt at all times while driving or riding

Auto accidents are the number one killer of American teens, according to the NHTSA. In 2011, 2,105 teens lost their lives on U.S. roads.

The good news? That number represents a huge improvement over the course of the last few years. From 2007 to 2011, the number of teen driving fatalities has fallen by 43 percent. Unfortunately, some markers have remained steady during this time period, including the percentage of teen drivers killed in auto accidents with positive blood alcohol concentrations (27 percent), the percentage who were speeding when they died (35 percent) and the percentage who were unrestrained (53 percent).

The NHTSA also says that distraction was a factor in 12 percent of fatal crashes involving teen drivers. Both cell phones and teenage passengers contribute to distractions for young drivers.

Teen passengers also play a unique role in creating peer pressure, which is likely to lead teen drivers to engage in risky behavior they might otherwise avoid. For instance, the agency found that in fatal crashes in which the teen driver was not wearing a seat belt, nearly 80 percent of that driver’s teen passengers rode unrestrained. Another study found that having one teenage passenger increased the likelihood that a teenage driver would engage in risky behavior by 2.5 times. Having multiple passengers increased the likelihood by three times.

If you have a teen driver in your household, speak with them regularly about the topics listed above and about defensive driving skills. Teach them that, as a driver, they must exercise maturity. They are responsible for their own safety and that of their passengers.

When your teen has a learner’s permit, take every opportunity possible to allow him or her to drive under your direct supervision. This is by far your best chance to instill safe driving habits that will stay with your child for life.

Posted on Tuesday, January 14th, 2014. Filed under Auto Accidents, News & Press.