NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The Trump Administration is proposing new rules for the nation's safety net program for people with disabilities that could end benefits for tens of thousands of people.
The rules would require more frequent paperwork checks of people getting Social Security disability payments in a process known as a "continuing disability review."
The proposed new rules have alarmed some advocates for people with disabilities, who call it a "backdoor way" to cut people from a program already under scrutiny for taking years to review disability claims and wrongly denying benefits.
Social Security Administration officials say the plan would "enhance program integrity and ensure that only those who continue to qualify for benefits will receive them."
Whose Social Security disability benefits would be impacted?
More than 16 million adults and children currently receive disability benefits, but the Social Security Administration isn't saying how many people the new rules would affect.
The agency has said it expects to conduct 4.4 million more continuing disability reviews over ten years if the rules take effect. The reviews would add $1.6 billion in administrative costs, but save $2.8 billion in benefits when people are cut from the program.
Using those figures, national advocates for people with disabilities estimate tens of thousands of people stand to lose disability benefits each year.
What is Social Security disability?
The Social Security Administration is best known for retirement benefits, but it also oversees two programs for people living with disabilities:
Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, is for low-income individuals without a work history. The maximum payment for an individual is $783 a month beginning in January.
Social Security Disability Insurance is for workers who become disabled. Payment amounts depend on past earning. In 2019, the average payment was $1,234 per month.
To qualify for either, individuals must show they have a long-term medical, psychological or intellectual impairment that prevent them for working.
Children who are blind or have severe functional limitations expected to last at least a year or result in death also qualify.
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The fine print on disability reviews
Once on disability, adults and children are subject to "continuing disability reviews" by Social Security staff.
The reviews require recipients to submit medical, income and asset records as well as documentation of living arrangements. Social Security staff then decide whether someone still qualifies for benefits.
How frequently anyone is required to go through a review depends on which of three categories Social Security has placed them in. Individuals whose conditions are expected to improve — babies born prematurely, for example — are in a category called "medical improvement expected" and reviewed every six to 18 months.
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People with debilitating or terminal conditions are in a "medical improvement not expected" category, reviewed every five to seven years.
Those in the "medical improvement possible" category are reviewed every three years.
Social Security officials are proposing a fourth category, "medical improvement likely," to be reviewed every two years.
Children would also be automatically reassessed at age 6 and 12. The Social Security Administration would also change some of the criteria for deciding in which category to place individuals.
You can read the rules here.
Why the Social Security plan is controversial
The reviews require recipients to submit large volumes of paperwork, a complicated and burdensome process for people living with a disability.
People go through a similar process when they first apply, which can take two or more years to complete.
Advocates are concerned people would lose benefits because they are unable to navigate the process, even though they did not experience any medical improvement.
A Tennessean investigation earlier this year found that some doctors hired to review disability claims raced through the paperwork at an implausible pace while billing six figures annually. Experts say it's impossible to review disability claims so quickly without wrongfully rejecting claims. The report prompted an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, which is ongoing.
Advocates have also questioned the Social Security Administration's projected savings.
The new reviews will save about $1.50 for every dollar spent, according to agency estimates.
Those projected savings, however, are significantly lower than what the Social Security Administration says it saves on current disability reviews: about $19 for every dollar spent.
What happens next?
A public comment period is open until Jan. 31 before the rules can be approved.
Congressional Democrats, in a letter to the Social Security Administration on Dec. 19, requested the comment period be extended to March 16.
Comments may be submitted online here or mailed to the Office of Regulations and Reports Clearance, Social Security Administration, 3100 West High Rise Building, 6401 Security Blvd., Baltimore, Maryland 21235-6401.
Follow Anita Wadhwani on Twitter: @AnitaWadhwani
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Social Security disability benefits program may change: Things to know