Trump administration threatens Social Security disability with broad cuts

The Trump administration is quietly launching an offensive to curtail the ability of Americans with disabilities to get the benefits they have earned. There are now at least three proposals on the table that would affect the benefits of thousands of Americans.

Continuing disability reviews

One proposed rule, published in November, would require more frequent reviews to be conducted to determine if Social Security disability beneficiaries are still disabled. The rule would affect those Americans who have already qualified for benefits.

When an individual is determined to be disabled, the Social Security Administration will conduct periodic reviews to determine if the person is still disabled. How often those reviews are conducted depends on the level of medical improvement expected for the person’s ailment.

Currently, there are three categories—medical improvement not expected, medical improvement possible and medical improvement expected. Reviews are conducted every six to 18 months for those whose improvement is expected, every three years for those whose improvement is possible and every five to seven years for those whose improvement is not expected.

The proposal would add a fourth category—medical improvement likely—for which reviews would be required every 2 years. The new proposal would also standardize the frequency of reviews for those not expected to improve at every six years.

The administration estimates that this would result in roughly 2.6 million additional reviews being conducted over the first 10 years after implementation—a roughly 18 percent increase. The administration estimates that the new policy would reduce the amount of total benefits paid by $2.6 billion. However, those savings would come at a cost of $1.8 billion to do the added review, officials said.

Cuts to retroactive benefits

That proposal came on the heels of one floated last year that would slash in half the maximum amount of retroactive benefits a claimant can receive, reducing it from 12 months to six.

When individuals are approved for Social Security disability, they are eligible to receive up to 12 months of retroactive payments from the onset of their disability to cover the time spent waiting for a decision.

However, the retroactive amount is already reduced via a mandatory five-month “waiting period” for which they are unable to receive benefits. The Social Security Administration says on its website that five-month waiting period is intended to ensure “that during the early months of disability, we do not pay benefits to persons who do not have long-term disabilities.”

Currently, Social Security disability beneficiaries already must wait through five full calendar months of continuous disability to receive their first payment. This is five months AFTER the date they are first considered fully disabled.

The process for obtaining benefits is already long, typically taking anywhere from 18 to 24 months to get a hearing and receive an award of benefits. The Trump administration plan would make a larger portion of that time ineligible for benefits. Thus, if the proposal succeeds, it will be even harder for claimants to recoup all the losses they incur waiting for a decision.

Raising the age for the decreased burden

A third and potentially more devastating proposal being floated would make it harder for older Americans to prove they qualify for benefits.

Currently, applicants age 50 and older only need to prove they cannot do the work they have done in the past to qualify for benefits. Those under 50 need to prove that their medical conditions prevent them from working at any other jobs in the national economy.

The latest proposal would move that age to 55. Those between the ages of 50 and 55 would have to meet the added burden of proving that they cannot do any work.

This proposal targets workers who have already have a lengthy work history. In particular, it hurts those who have put in years of physical labor and sacrificed their health in the process. It also disregards the difficulties individuals 50 and older have in getting a new job and learning a new occupation. Given that federal age discrimination law specifically recognizes that discrimination is prevalent against those 40 and older, it is curious that the Trump administration would put such a higher burden on those as many as 15 years older.

The Social Security disability fund is solvent

The motivation for these cuts to disability benefits is unclear but they seem to be based on the myth that the disability program is in financial jeopardy. However, that is simply not true. The Social Security disability trust fund is healthy and solvent.

The Social Security Board of Trustees released projections last April showing the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund will remain solvent at current funding levels until 2052—20 years longer than previous projections. The revelation dispels just another myth often used by those who want to cut the program.

Pundits and politicians have been feeding the fear for years that unless drastic cuts in benefits are made, Social Security will run out of funds to pay beneficiaries. Fears of bankrupting the system have forced many to forgo applying for the disability benefits they deserve. The fact is, Social Security is not going bankrupt.

The SSDI fund is now projected to cover scheduled payouts of full benefits through 2052 and pay roughly 91 percent of scheduled benefits thereafter. A previous projection from 2018 had estimated that the SSDI fund would only be able to meet its full obligations until 2032.

These projections are based on funding for the program remaining at current levels. While the report projects a shortfall should funding levels continue, it can easily be avoided with modest reforms. For instance, minor tax increases staggered over decades would erase the funding deficit. Thus, there is no funding crisis.

Perpetuating a stigma, prolonging the suffering

The proposals highlight another problematic attempt to further stigmatize those receiving Social Security disability benefits. All three proposals enact obstacles for those suffering from disabilities to get the benefits they deserve. Underlying these schemes is the attituded that some are cheating the system or getting a “freebie.”

The national discourse has already adopted the word “entitlement” to describe disability benefits, bringing with it the negative connotation that the payments are “handouts, “welfare” or “public assistance.”

Nothing is 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 to 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.

The proposed cuts are threatening to withhold benefits Americans have already paid for and earned. These proposals would have profound effects on disabled Americans, who must already wait more than a year from the time they apply for a hearing before an administrative law judge. During that time, they are receiving no income and are deprived of medical benefits.

According to the Washington Post, government data shows that approximately 8,600 Americans died while waiting for Social Security disability benefits in 2016. That number rose to more than 10,000 in 2017. Putting up additional obstacles to getting benefits only puts more lives unnecessarily at risk.

Speak up

The reality is that the Trump administration is clearly targeting the Social Security disability program. Some proposals will require congressional approval, but others can be done through administrative rulemaking. Thus, it is likely that some like the additional continuing disability reviews will be implemented.

It is important to remember that your elected officials are public servants who represent you. Let them hear your voice on this and other issues.

Meanwhile, Pond Lehocky will continue fighting for hard-working Americans, getting them the benefits they deserve. If you need help in legal matters, speak with our intake specialists today for a free consultation.

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