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.