Trumps Social Security Disability changes, Will They Harm Those Most In Need Of Help?

By: Passionate Pachyderms

On Nov. 18, 2019 the Social Security Administration announced a proposal to conduct roughly 2.6 million additional reviews for continued eligibility for adults and children currently receiving Social Security disability benefits in the next decade. 

If the proposal is passed and implemented, the change would likely result in the loss of benefits for tens of thousands of disabled citizens of all ages — raising the bar of a failed Reagan administration attempt in the early 1980s to cut federal spending for assistance programs. 

For political and humane reasons, President Trump and his policymakers should not make the same dangerous mistake.

To date, several presidential hopefuls have publicly warned against the plan including Democratic candidates, Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, with more sure to follow. 

From 1981 to 1984, the Social Security Administration altered the established review process of people receiving Social Security disability benefits which resulted in removal notices for almost half a million beneficiaries, many of whom suffered with mental illness. The majority of those whose benefits were cut off were clearly eligible and in need of assistance.

In the 1980s activists fought vigorously, along with others, against what was a blatant attempt by the Reagan administration to reduce federal spending by purging the disability rolls. That battle was won to the relief of millions of disabled Americans and their families, but not before it resulted in serious harm to thousands unjustly removed. 

The victory was documented in the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984, which set reasonable standards for eligibility reviews for benefits.

The Reagan administration’s assault on disability beneficiaries was eventually stopped due to a wave of opposition which spanned both major political parties. Horror stories of disabled people with conditions like cerebral palsy, and those on round-the-clock oxygen, being unjustly removed from the rolls filled the media. In Lansing, Mich., a man who was unable to work shot himself after receiving a termination notice; his suicide note read, “They are playing God.” A 1982 Los Angeles Times headline, “Disability Purge Ruinous to Many,” captured the outcry of the nation which ensued.

That outcry included more than two dozen congressional hearings, federal class action litigation, and a bipartisan rebellion of at least 18 states refusing to follow Social Security review directives. The injustice of the Reagan plan was so apparent that partisan divisions dissolved into unanimous support: The Senate vote for the reform act was 99-0; in the House, 402-0.

All of this having been said and documented in American history, why in the world would the Trump administration want to repeat one of Reagan’s most damaging mistakes?

Trumps administration — just like the Reagan administration — claims the increased reviews will allow officials to administer the program more efficiently. However they provide no persuasive support to justify the proposal, or to explain why the current system needs to be changed.

The current system already has plenty of hurdles. It can take as much as 3-4 years to qualify for disability benefits and the eligibility test is so tough that more than 60 percent of applicants are initially denied. Once awarded, the benefits are subject to government review at periodic intervals. To determine frequency of the reviews, disabling individual conditions are put into one of three categories: Medical Improvement Expected (every six to 18 months), Medical Improvement Possible (every three years) and Medical Improvement Not Expected (every five to seven years). The S.S.A. wants to add another category, Medical Improvement Likely, which would allow it to conduct even more reviews. Unlike in the past past, the agency is not relying on medical data to identify who will be reviewed, but is instead using a “predictive model” that they refuse to disclose.

The targets of the Trump administration ramp-up are troubling. The first involves older adults with disabilities nearing retirement; the second, some 627,000 reviews, would re-evaluate children with disabilities at ages 6 and 12 for no discernible medical reason; the third group targets adults and children with disabling conditions like cancer and serious behavioral and mental disorders, including bipolar disorder and (for children) speech disorders.

The S.S.A. provides no clear medical or scientific data which explains why these conditions might be expected to improve sooner, nor any data that indicates beneficiaries currently stay on disability too long. It offers only some unsubstantiated hope that more frequent reviews will mean that those terminated will re-enter the employment market — which is hardly a likely outcome.

In spite of congressional inquiries, the S.S.A. refuses to release internal data on how many are expected to lose benefits due to the new reviews. 

The agency does project it will save $2.6 billion in reduced payments from those terminated, but will also spend an additional $1.8 billion in increased administrative costs. 

Is a vague hope of some relatively small cost savings worth the risk that many will be unfairly denied support?

In reality, there is likely to be an ideological basis for the reviews, as suggested by the writings of Mark Warshawsky, the deputy commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy, who was appointed in 2017. Mr. Warshawsky urged the elimination of work-related factors like age, language ability and education level, all of which currently the S.S.A. must consider under the Social Security Act in assessing ability to work. These factors are often especially important for older adults, one group singled out for increased review. 

Mr. Warshawsky even questioned the agency’s already strict medical criteria for eligibility, asserting that some disabling diseases are now more “livable.” But improved survival rates for once terminal conditions like cancer do not necessarily correlate to people’s ability to do full-time, substantial work — the test for receiving benefits.

While a reasonable review process is needed and is already in effect, the proposal is far from reasonable. 

Arbitrary reviews every two years are excessive. Reviews are burdensome and costly for mentally or physically impaired beneficiaries. For people with mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, the stress of the process exacerbates their existing disabilities. People who miss a step are terminated for noncooperation. Very few lawyers are able to take disability review cases, leaving people with disabilities to go it alone. More red tape and appeals are certain.

The Social Security Administration’s new plan caps off a long list of harmful disability measures that have fallen below the radar of the public and media: allowing the agency to disregard the opinion of the claimant’s treating physician; and making it virtually impossible for children with conditions like asthma to qualify under the already very strict medical disability criteria. 

Other rules, following Mr. Warshawsky’s views, are in the pipeline, including ones adversely impacting older Americans.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a STRONG Trump supporter. 

That said, I can find no legitimate argument  that makes proceeding with this proposal a good idea, not politically, not financially, certainly not morally.  

The one thing which might make some sort of sense here in my opinion, is if the Trump administration is attempting to open the door a crack with this proposal now, so later, they can push that door open all the way and shove through even more catastrophic changes to the Social Security disability benefit.

In the event this is the case, I urge all to step forward now and speak LOUDLY against this proposal. 

Those who are most vulnerable among us are not /should not/ and can not consistently be the easiest targets when it comes to political cost savings ideas.

Beneficiaries of SSDI are not hanging on to some perceived unearned “entitlement.” Those individuals worked and paid into social security all their working lives until becoming too ill or disabled to work. 

When they turned to the SSA to get the benefits they worked and paid for after becoming disabled, they are forced to navigate their way, often while fighting for their lives, through a system in which it takes most who apply years to get. Years in which they have ZERO income. Many in the process lose their savings, retirement, home, family, and marriages, all again while fighting for their lives medically. 

Once they manage to obtain the benefits rightfully theirs, politicians come along and decide after all these poor people have already gone through, that it’s a brilliant plan to keep making their lives more difficult, more stressful, and more impossible by requiring them to continue jumping through often impossible hoops the government has put in place for one reason and one reason alone, to make getting and keeping this poverty level benefit these individuals worked and paid for out of each and every paycheck, so they would have “something” in the event they became too ill or disabled to work, virtually impossible to get or keep resulting in those most in need being forced to give up, become homeless, helpless, and hopeless, many of whom no doubt will take their own lives in desperation.

If in fact this is some backhanded way for the Trump administration to open that door a crack, it’s up to each and every American citizen to step in front of that door, and refuse them access.

When coupled with what is currently happening to those in the Chronic Pain Patient community, including individuals with rare, disabling, progressive, and degenerative diseases/conditions, cancer/palliative care patients, and American Veterans with disabilities, who are being severely restricted or cut off of life saving pain medications all together, abandoned by their doctors, unable to find medical care, and yet, this administration has said NOTHING, done NOTHING, and turned an ignorant blind eye to the realities of what their “War on Pain Patients and their doctors” has done including causing thousands to choose suicide as the only way out of the pain and misery they are in.

This paints an extremely ugly, damming, and freakishly familiar picture of a government intent upon “culling the herd” by systematically weeding out those among us who are sick, disabled, elderly, those who are no longer physically able to contribute in any meaningful way to the tax base. Hummm where have we seen that picture painted before?

Be VERY careful Mr. Trump, you are walking on some extremely slippery, VERY thin ice as you opt to venture down this particular pathway. It’s not too late to turn back, take another path, and DO THE RIGHT THING.

The proposal is now open for public comment and will be until Jan. 31. 

WE hope the more than 42,000 comments already filed will convince the agency to withdraw these plans, or that the White House will step in when they see a total of 3.3 million disability beneficiaries in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida alone, not to mention the millions in other states.

A disability benefits purge might just be deemed untimely for an election year.


I am Passionate Pachyderms, The BRUTALLY HONEST ELEPHANT in EVERY room. and I tell it like it is.

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