A new study shows that there is often a decline in earnings prior to claims for Disability Insurance Benefits.  The study demonstrates something that’s obvious at ground level — for most disabled people, disability isn’t something that happens all at once. It comes on over the course of years.  Of course, disability can be prompted by a traumatic event such as a heart attack or a car accident, but more often disability is more insidious and occurs over a period of years as individuals slowly become less functional due to multitude of factors.
This is important because those in Congress and the higher reaches of Social Security tend to visualize disability as mostly associated with trauma but that’s wrong. Trauma is actually a relatively minor source of disability. It’s illnesses that accumulate and worsen over time. Often it’s more than one thing that disables a person. People try hard to fight off disability. Often they wait a considerable period of time after stopping work altogether before filing a claim. People don’t like to have to concede that they’re disabled.  This study shows the general decline in function and earnings that often occur prior to an individual ceasing work completely


What is the Trust Fund?

March 15, 2017

The Social Security trust funds are financial accounts in the U.S. Treasury. There are two separate Social Security trust funds, the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund pays retirement and survivors benefits, and the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund pays disability benefits.

Social Security taxes and other income are deposited in these accounts, and Social Security benefits are paid from them. The only purposes for which these trust funds can be used are to pay benefits and program administrative costs.

The Social Security trust funds hold money not needed in the current year to pay benefits and administrative costs and, by law, invest it in special Treasury bonds that are guaranteed by the U.S. Government. A market rate of interest is paid to the trust funds on the bonds they hold, and when those bonds reach maturity or are needed to pay benefits, the Treasury redeems them.

In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, holding that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry in all states and have their marriage recognized by other states. This decision made it possible for more same-sex couples and their families to benefit from our programs.

SSA now recognizes same-sex couples’ marriages in all states, and some non-marital legal relationships (such as some civil unions and domestic partnerships), for purposes of determining entitlement to Social Security benefits and Medicare, and eligibility and payment amount for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).  SSA also recognizes same-sex marriages and some non-marital legal relationships established in foreign jurisdictions for purposes of determining entitlement to Social Security benefits and Medicare, and SSI.

Social Security does not discriminate against age, background, or sexual preference — securing today and tomorrow, equally and fairly, is our legacy. We encourage anyone who believes they may be eligible for benefits to apply now. Learn more at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/same-sexcouples.

Citing his First Amendment rights and religious protections under the Civil Rights Act, a Social Security Administration judge in Texas who refused to watch an LGBT diversity training video is suing his superiors to avoid being fired, saying he was subject to a “religiously hostile work environment.”

Judge Gary Suttles said in a complaint filed Thursday in federal court in Texas that the Social Security Administration, or SSA, should be barred from taking any disciplinary action against him at least until his religious discrimination claims are heard by a federal employment panel.

Though his complaint describes a “sterling work record,” Suttles was criticized and investigated by the SSA in 2015 after he scoffed at a Gulf War veteran’s post-traumatic stress disorder during a disability benefits hearing. Suttles questioned whether the veteran, a 44-year-old who served as a fueler on an aircraft carrier, had experienced true trauma during the war.

Suttles has a 15% reversal rate, meaning he turns down 85% of the claimants whose cases he hears. That’s an extraordinarily low number. By any standard, Suttles is an extreme outlier.

ALJ Statistics

February 22, 2017

Fiscal Year 2016 statistics are out with regard to Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) productivity.  Most ALJs (0ver 900) tend to issues between 400 and 600 decisions each year, or an average of 33-50 decisions each month.  However, some ALJs are outliers:

  • About 75 ALJs issued over 600 decisions
  • About 290 ALJs issued between 300 and 400 decisions
  • About 400 ALJs issued less than 200 decisions

The statistics may be skewed in that some of the less productive ALJs could have been hired mid-year, however, if any ALJ is working full time and issuing less than 30 decisions a month, I would consider that to be deplorable.  Disabled individuals are waiting, at least in Jacksonville, upwards of 18 months for a decision.  We have 14 ALJs in our office, suggesting that, on average between 8000 and 9000 decisions each year.   Unfortunately, there are probably in excess of 14000 individuals waiting for hearings.  Currently, the Jacksonville office has been transferring their workload to other offices in Birmingham and Florence Alabama.  I am hopeful that this initiative will help the wait times will decrease but I think a modest increase in the lowest producing ALJs would also decrease the backlog of cases and consequently, the wait time for a hearing.

Your eligibility for these benefits works on the same credit system as for retirement payouts, but there are slightly different rules about who is eligible. Eligibility for disability benefits depends on how old you are when you become disabled, as well as the nature of your disability. You can’t qualify for disability benefits if you are able to work and earn more than $1,130 a month (in 2016). Your disability also must be considered severe enough to affect your everyday work-related activities.
Disability benefit payments start only after you have been disabled for five months, and they continue until your condition has improved enough that you can start working again or to the date you reach your full retirement age. To estimate your disability payments, check out the online benefits calculator offered by the SSA.
If your adult child is disabled before the age of 22, he or she can qualify for benefits based on your earnings record. Anyone who becomes disabled after turning 22 needs to pass the recent work test, a measure of how many years of work you have performed depending on your age.
If you are still receiving disability insurance by the time you reach full retirement age, your payments switch over to retirement benefits. The amount of your payments remains the same.

The status of Social Security benefit statements has been in flux in recent years.  At one point, SSA claimed a $71 million savings by rolling back the paper statements and instead requiring individuals to either set up an online account or visit a local office to obtain statement.

Last month, Deputy Commissioner Doug Walker disclosed that the agency would cease mailing paper statements to most workers. Only people ages 60 or older who are not receiving benefits and who haven’t opened a MySocialSecurity online account will still get them.

The stated reason is budgetary concerns, but the failure to send paper statements seems shortsighted given that hours at local offices have been cut, the wait times at the 1-800 number is at times interminable and many people lack the capacity to set up an online account.

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