April 25, 2014

Big Changes Coming Soon to the Social Security Disability Decision Making Process?

Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn has released a comprehensive deficit reduction plan for the United States called Back in Black.  Included in this almost 600 page plan is a subsection related to Social Security disability called Social Security Disability Programs:  Improving the Quality of Benefit Award Decisions.   Senator Coburn notes that if current financial trends continue,  the SSDI and SSI programs will run out of money in 2015 or 2016.   While no one expects Congress to let this happen, the immediacy of the SSDI program's default has caught the attention of lawmakers in the House and Senate.

Senator Coburn argues that "significant stress on the [Social Security disability] trust fund is due in part to the fact that the number of individuals receiving disability benefits continues to rise at an unprecedented rate. "  He quotes a study from the Center for American Progress which reports that the disability program "provides strong incentives to applicants and beneficiaries to remain permanently out of the labor force, and it provides no incentives to employers to implement cost-effective accommodations that enale employees with work limitations to remain on the job.”  Further “too many work-capable individuals involuntarily exit the labor force and apply for and often receive” Social Security disability.

Over a two year period, Senator Coburn and his staff reviewed SSDI hearing decisions from Virginia, Alabama and Oklahoma.  His report concludes that a significant number of the hearing decisions were flawed because of poor hearing practices, improper evaluation of evidence by hearing judges, outdated job lists (referring to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles), and inconsistent use of consultative examinations.

The Coburn Committee’s recommendations include:

  • presence of government representatives at hearing to oppose claims
  • increasing hearing decision reviews
  • enhanced ALJ training
  • “reform” of the grid rules
  • revision of consultative evaluation processes

While Senator Coburn’s recommendations have not yet been formally adopted by the Social Security Administration, it seems likely that Congress and SSA officials will implement some of these changes to reduce the drain on the disability trust fund.


Jonathan Ginsberg represents clients in disability claims filed with the Social Security Administration.


  1. As an attorney for Social secuirty disability claimants in Cincinnati I do know the grid rules if applied appropriately can allow a 50 year old that is capable of sedentary work be found disabled. I can accept moving that age to 55. I have no clue as to what the savings would be. But I would like to see a program that retrains those to be able to make a meaningful wage. I also know that the study was flawed but there is just so much money to go around.  Also someone has to come to terms with how long we will be paying disability benefits to veterans for these two wars. The presence of government representatives to oppose claims is ridulous as it just adds more expense. The judges do a good enough job of rendering decisions. In 30 years of practice I have only seen one client get benefits that he should not have . So the system is not abused in my opinion.

  2. Jonathan Ginsberg says:

    George Will wrote an interesting editorial at http://wapo.st/ReVWVO and he makes several valid points about the unsustainability of entitlements.  From my perspective, I am mostly concerned about consistency and predictability of the process rather than expansion of it because we cannot continue the status quo.

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