What Changes Are Coming To The Social Security Disability Process?

3 April 2015
 Categories: Law, Articles

If you've recently become disabled and are looking into your long-term income options, you may have begun to investigate Social Security Disability. However, a number of recent media reports have begun to raise alarm about the fiscal future of this program. To adapt to these changes, the government has begun to undertake some broad reforms to the disability application and approval process. Read on to learn more about some of the changes coming to the Social Security Disability program, as well as what you can do to increase the chances of a successful application.

For what type of disability payments are you eligible?

Often, the catch-all term "Social Security Disability" is used to refer to both Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability (SSD). Although the terms are often used interchangeably, these are two very different programs. 

In general, you'll qualify for SSD payments if you have a work history that is sufficient to provide you with Social Security retirement benefits upon full retirement age. The amount of this disability benefit will vary, depending upon your salary during the quarters for which employment is reported.

If you don't have enough work history to qualify for SSD, you may instead qualify for SSI -- a subsistence-level disability program designed to allow adults who have been unable to hold down work to live independently. In addition to being lower than SSD payments, SSI payments are subject to an asset test. If you hold more than $2,000 in liquid assets (or $3,000 if you're married) you may be rendered ineligible to receive SSI benefits until you've spent down these funds. 

What changes are coming to the SSD and SSI application process? 

In response to both changes in technology and fiscal constraints, lawmakers have proposed some sweeping reforms to the SSD and SSI application and approval process. These include:

  • Judicial oversight

When you apply for SSD or SSI, you go through a quasi-judicial process -- although your claim is heard by an administrative law judge (ALJ) rather than a trial judge, you are permitted to present evidence supporting your claim. The ALJ may then ask you or your attorney questions to clarify any issues, and will issue a written letter granting or denying your benefits.

Many Social Security ALJs have a hefty caseload -- and often, under pressures to process as many cases as possible, may not have given applications the scrutiny they deserved. The Social Security Administration has issued regulations making clear that these judges are subject to oversight. If a judge's record of approved or denied applications veers too far from the norm, he or she could end up having a number of cases reviewed by an independent judge.

  • Shaking up the "grid"

Another change that may directly affect your application is the re-ordering of the disability grid often used as a "cheat sheet" by attorneys and ALJs. This grid maps the severity of a disability based on a number of factors -- including the applicant's age, comorbidities, skill set, and other relevant information. In the past, the older and more unskilled the applicant, the higher the odds that his or her disability application would be approved.

Some applicants and their physicians used this grid in their favor to seek approval of applications that might be otherwise declined. For example, an applicant might leave off relevant educational information, or play up comorbidities like high blood pressure or cholesterol, in order to increase his or her odds of approval.

By changing this grid (and keeping it closer to the vest) the Social Security Administration should be able to begin vetting more genuine applications.

Click here to learn more, or contact an experienced social security lawyer in your area.