Columnist James B. Winston: Trump administration targets Social Security disability


Published: 8/17/2017 7:17:37 PM

Thank you for the July 24 coverage of changes to the Social Security disability program, including the proposed budget cuts (“Changing rules on disability income” and “Trump budget cuts disability by $72 billion over decade”).

A few days before Memorial Day, President Donald Trump released his budget proposal for fiscal year 2018. Trump decided to put major programs on the chopping block, including Social Security.

On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly promised that he would “not touch Social Security” and that he in fact wanted to save it. Not only does he betray his promise, but as the Gazette article details, he proposes slashing Social Security by a whopping $72 billion — the biggest cuts would be to the disability programs. The proposed cuts will hurt millions of American workers with disabilities, including roughly 202,000 Massachusetts residents.

The Social Security programs have been under attack for the past several years, mostly due to a general lack of understanding of how they work. Since its establishment in 1956 by Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) has been a core pillar of our nation’s social system.

Protecting the American worker, SSDI provides support when we need it most. While the benefits are modest, averaging $1,172 per month, it provides vital assistance to 8.8 million Americans with disabilities — including nearly 1 million veterans. Roughly 80 percent of SSDI beneficiaries rely on this program as their main source of income and without it, millions of Americans would be in a very poor financial situation.

These proposed cuts come at a time when the Social Security Administration (SSA) is in the midst of one of the biggest public service crises in the agency’s history. As a result of inadequate funding and a shortage in staffing, the Social Security disability programs are facing an unprecedented backlog, leaving more than 1.1 million people stuck in an administrative limbo awaiting a hearing.

Right now, the average wait time for a claimant to get a hearing before an administrative law judge is 595 days or nearly 20 months. Fortunately, in Springfield the wait for a hearing before a judge is less than the national average, or about 12 months.

I recently helped obtain disability benefits for a man who had lost all use of his dominant hand through a work-place accident. Prior to the hearing, this man who had worked hard his entire life had lost his home, and was living in his car with his wife while waiting for his disability hearing. Slashing Social Security administrative funding will only exacerbate the backlog, and more American families would find themselves financially insecure.

Other proposals in the president’s budget that would cause harm to people trying to receive Social Security disability payments include:

Unemployment/disability insurance offset that would be a disincentive for people with disabilities to attempt to work. It should be noted that many SSDI and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients do work on a part-time basis.

A sliding scale for multi-recipient SSI households would deepen poverty among SSI recipients, who already have very low incomes and would limit families’ ability to care for each other in times of need.

I want to clarify the Gazette’s report that “nearly all parties acknowledge that there is some fraud in the SSDI program, with able-bodied people receiving benefits, though assessments differ on how often this occurs.” First, the SSA already has one of the most stringent disability standards in the industrialized world. Second, the SSA has in place a continuing disability review program that monitors whether disability recipients have medically improved to the point where they should no longer be eligible to receive disability benefits. Finally, many “able-bodied” people who receive disability benefits because their disability case is based on severe mental impairments, (as opposed to physical impairments) which often include the claimant taking very sedating psychotropic medications.

Unfortunately, regulatory changes, a divided Congress and a new president whose administration is focused on gutting Social Security disability programs will likely result in more harmful changes in the months and years to come.

James B. Winston is a Northampton attorney who represents claimants in Social Security disability appeals.

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