Six Changes Social Security Is Making to Its Disability Program

The Social Security Administration is undertaking a number of changes to the way it determines whether someone qualifies for disability benefits. Here are six major shifts underway.

  • 1.) Listings. When someone applies for disability benefits, the agency considers whether the person can do any job in the local area. It uses people called “vocational experts” to try and match the applicant’s background with various occupations. But the agency asks these vocational experts to use a “dictionary” of more than 10,000 job listings that hasn’t been updated since 1991. It still includes job titles like “show girl,” “blacksmith,” and “chick sexer,” or someone whose job is to determine the sex of a chicken. It doesn’t really account for the recent technology boom that has created scores of job opportunities in the technology sector (many of these jobs are sedentary and could be easier for someone who, for example, can’t stand on their feet for hours at a time). Rewriting this dictionary, however, is expected to take years. It probably won’t be completed until at least 2016 (and perhaps later than that). If you’re looking to get answers to your questions in the spokane area be sure to look up the Spokane personal injury attorney, Russell and Hill.
  • 2.) The Grid. Social Security administrative law judges use something referred to as the “grid” to determine whether many people qualify for benefits. For example, if you are older than 60, have a fifth-grade education, and have major depression and a severe heart condition, the chances are very high you are getting benefits. If you are 42, have mild depression, and have a doctorate in engineering, you have a very low chance of getting disability. The agency hasn’t updated this grid in years, though. And many judges believe it’s easy for lawyers and others to “work” the grid by knowing precisely what will qualify for benefits and then tailoring an application to win awards. The grid also doesn’t reflect that many workers can continue working well into their 60s and 70s in quite productive positions.
  • 3.) Disclosure. The Wall Street Journal in December 2011 wrote an article about a disability firm that routinely withheld from government submissions medical records that, according to five former employees, could have been damaging to client claims. This triggered a big debate within the agency. Many believed this shouldn’t be allowed, while others said the agency had proposed cracking down on this behavior but repeatedly backed away in the face of pressure.
  • A top agency official said last month that it will soon propose a new rule that will deal with preventing firms and others from withholding information related to a disability application. But the official wouldn’t say what the proposal might look like, or how strict it might be.
  • 4.) Caseload. The Social Security Administration, to tackle a large backlog of cases, pumped case volume up for judges who could handle incredible caseloads. The agency wanted all judges to do between 500 and 700 cases a year. But a number of judges several years ago were handling more than 1,000 cases a year (and at least one judge handled more than twice that amount). Many judges complained there was no way they could properly scrutinize complicated medical files if they had to push so many cases through the system, and the agency eventually capped the number of cases a judge could hear. The cap has been lowered at least twice in the past two years, and is currently around 800 cases.
  • 5.) Doctors and Lawyers. The agency and its inspector general are launching a project to try to determine whether “third-party” groups in the disability system are facilitating fraud of any kind. They are looking, specifically, at whether doctors and lawyers are somehow cheating the system. This task force has only just begun and it hasn’t identified any targets or findings.
  • 6.) Job Description. Becoming a Social Security Administration judge used to be a posh assignment. Many felt they had the equivalent of a lifetime appointment, as it was very hard for a judge to be removed from his or her post. But the agency on Sunday is changing the job description to make clear that judges are subject to several layers of supervision. It has also toughened the scrutiny of judges and can push them toward intensified training if a judge’s numbers (such as the percentage of applicants he or she awards benefits to) is outside the norm.