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Social Security Administration may tighten disability evaluations

Since 1978, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has taken what you might say is a whole-person view of when someone is disabled from working for purposes of eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) – at least at older ages. What this means is that for an SSDI or SSI claimant whose impairment does not meet or equal in severity one on an official list of disabling medical conditions and who cannot return to work previously performed, the agency not only looks at medical limitations, but also at other vocational factors.

The agency currently considers nonmedical factors

For example, in a series of complicated, detailed regulations, the SSA sets out how to analyze a claimant’s combination of physical exertional limits (is the claimant limited to sedentary, light or medium work), age, education/literacy and work experience (unskilled, semiskilled or skilled with or without transferable skills).

This analysis recognizes that whether someone with a severe impairment can work also depends on these nonmedical factors. These factors are placed into the Medical-Vocational Guidelines (the grids), a table in the rules that creates many vocational profiles that combine these various factors to determine disability from working.

If the claimant has nonexertional limits not contemplated by the grids (mental impairment symptoms, environmental restrictions, other physical limits like inability to grip or crawl), the grids may provide guidance or may not be applicable to determining disability.

SSA may propose changes to the weight given nonmedical factors

The disability findings dictated by the grids are mostly significant for those claimants at least age 50 and up, who currently are considered less able to adjust to different work than they have done in the past. According to The Wall Street Journal, which reports having seen a draft of proposed regulatory changes, the SSA will propose a change to these rules that would place less weight on the whole-person analysis of the current regulations.

For example, the proposal would reportedly raise the age at which nonmedical vocational factors become relevant to 55 from the current 50.

People opposed in principal to broad public benefits based on disability have advocated for a streamlined analysis of disability that only accounts for medically caused limits – and ignores vocational factors like age, work experience and education. While these proposals do not appear to be that extreme, it may be a step in that direction that could disqualify some mostly older claimants who currently might be found disabled and eligible because their nonmedical background is considered relevant to the question of disability.

The Journal reports that the agency says it will base its proposal on changes to the job market since the 1978 regulations because of automation and technology making more jobs available to people with medical limitations.

Advocates for the disabled will watch this regulatory development with concern and keep readers up to date.