Social Security wants to snoop on social media for disability decisions

The Trump Administration is reportedly working on a proposal to that will allow the Social Security Administration to use social media posts in evaluating whether claimants are disabled.

Currently, disability examiners do not routinely look at social media. However, social media posts are used to build fraud cases. Suspicious cases are referred to the Inspector General for Social Security, who may use social media to corroborate information gleaned in fraud investigations conducted with state and local authorities.

The new policy would expand the use of social media, allowing agency staff to comb through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media accounts to find evidence that a claimant is not disabled.

‘Unreliable information’

Disability advocates say social media surveillance will produce unreliable and misleading evidence, without proper context.

“Allowing the Social Security Administration to utilize social media posts of disabled Americans is a dangerous precedent which will unjustly cause many deserving individuals to lose their claim and/or stop their benefits,” Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano Partner Tom Giordano Jr. said.  “A post, snapshot or short video of an individual does not tell the whole story.”

“Social media posts are often purposely exaggerated and allowing such unreliable information to play a role in an important decision as whether an individual is disabled from performing gainful activity will undoubtedly result in improper decisions,” Giordano added.

Adding to long waits

Another issue with the social media surveillance proposal is that it could add significant time to an already lengthy process. There is already a significant backlog of Social Security disability cases, with many disabled Americans waiting over two years to appear before a judge. In 2017, over 5,000 people died waiting for their hearing.

The proposal is intended to crack down on alleged fraud and abuse in the Social Security disability (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) systems. While Republicans have argued that disability fraud is rampant, the numbers tend to show that Social Security disability fraud is exceedingly rare. The SSA, itself, pegs the fraud incidence rate at “a fraction of one percent.”

Fraud is rare

For fiscal-year 2018, the SSA’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported that Social Security fraud investigations had obtained $98 million in recoveries, fines, settlements/judgments, and restitution.

While that figure might seem large, it is infinitesimal compared to the nearly $200 billion paid out yearly for SSD and SSI.  Also, that $98 million represents money paid out over years to claimants, not just a single year.

Adding to the stigma

The baseless rhetoric about fraud further stigmatizes those receiving Social Security disability benefits. The national discourse has already adopted the word “entitlement” to describe the benefits, bringing with it the negative connotation that the payments are “handouts, “welfare” or “public assistance.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a disability insurance program that all American workers pay into with automatic paycheck withholdings. Employees pay 6.2 percent of every paycheck toward Social Security taxes. Self-employed individuals pay 12.4 percent.

Those funds are used to fund three things: a retirement plan, Medicare and a disability insurance plan that will cover them if they suffer an injury or illness that prevents them from working. Thus, there is no reason that disability should be viewed any different than retirement or Medicare.

Stay tuned

The new policy is not yet in effect.

While not formally part of the Trump Administration’s proposed fiscal-year 2020 budget, the social media surveillance policy stems from a line in the budget authorizing the SSA “to use all collection tools to recover funds in certain scenarios.”

In its 2019 budget request, the SSA proposed to study and design successful strategies for disability adjudicators to use social media posts in their evaluations. In its 2020 budget request, the agency said it was “evaluating how social media could be used by disability adjudicators in assessing the consistency and supportability of evidence in a claimant’s case file.”

It seems unlikely that Congress will approve the budget proposal. That does not necessarily spell doom for the social media surveillance policy. The Trump Administration could still try to impose the policy through the regulatory process.

Meanwhile, Pond Lehocky Stern Giordano will continue to monitor the situation and provide any updates.

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