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Potentially big changes announced for Social Security disability

According to the Wall Street Journal, the Social Security Administration is in the process of making what could ultimately be major changes to the Social Security disability system. The changes center around three issues: how the agency determines an applicant’s ability to perform substantial meaningful work; the caseload and responsibility of SSA administrative law judges; and the responsibilities of lawyers and doctors who work on SSD cases.

Let’s start with the first issue. Whether you meet SSA’s basic definition of disability depends not only on your medical condition but also on your education and work history. The SSA has just announced it is updating the manual the agency’s vocational experts use to determine what work you could be qualified to perform.

The manual, referred to as the “dictionary,” hasn’t been updated since 1991, meaning it doesn’t reflect most jobs in the critical technology sector. However, the updates are expected to take years; the earliest it could be released is 2016.

The agency is also updating a second manual, called the “grid.” The grid cross-references qualifying disabilities with assessments of how likely it is that people with those disabilities would be able to perform substantial, meaningful work, considering their age and vocational history.

The next change the SSA announced has to do with its administrative law judges, who decide SSDI and SSI appeals. As we discussed in April, the judges’ union sued the SSA over caseloads so high the judges said they don’t have time to decide appeals fairly. Not much has changed yet -- their average caseload is still 500 to 700 appeals a year.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the SSA is concerned both with judges whose productivity is considered too low and with those who handle far more cases than average. The agency has also made clear, reporters said, that judges will be scrutinized on how many applications they approve.

Finally, a new task force has been launched to find out whether there might be a widespread problem with doctors and lawyers handling SSD cases assisting with fraudulent claims. Currently, however, no specific information indicates any such problem.

When complete, the changes to SSA’s determination of applicants’ vocational abilities could have a significant impact on some workers with disabilities. If you have questions about the SSDI or SSI application process, feel free to discuss them with an attorney or visit ssa.gov.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Six Changes Social Security is Making to its Disability Program,” Damian Peletta, Dec. 26, 2013

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