According to a January 10, 2014 editorial by Michael Hilzik with the Washington Times, Congress is considering some significant changes to the disability program as part of a deal to extend long-term unemployment benefits. Hilzik included a link to the draft language from the bill as part of his editorial.
Currently, claimants can file for SSDI benefits while they are drawing unemployment benefits. If they are later found to be disabled for the time that they were drawing unemployment, they still receive disability benefits for this time. (A minority of states may require that they repay the State for unemployment received for these months). The draft would impose a reduction in Social Security Benefits paid for those months where beneficiaries received unemployment. This means effectively a dollar for dollar reduction in SSDI benefits based upon unemployment received.
According to Hilzik, the measure has the backing of Senate Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Given that Republicans in the House have been looking for ways to rein in the Social Security Administration, it seems likely that the measure would pass.
I have mixed feelings about this. I agree with Hilzik’s general frustration that Congress is choosing to help the unemployed at the expense of those who are unemployed and disabled. That said, the SSA’s current treatment of unemployment benefits has been all over the map and this measure could at least bring clarity. Some ALJs completely ignore the issue of unemployment while it is a make or break issue for others. I routinely see ALJs force claimant’s to amend their alleged onset dates to times after their unemployment benefits ceased. There is nothing in the law that says that they should do this, but most of these ALJs view it as a fundamental credibility issue.
In terms of money for claimants, I think it will cost some of them a significant amount of back pay. However, it won’t mean any difference for claimants who are forced to amend onset after the receipt of unemployment. What it will do for these claimants is give me a way of arguing an earlier onset for them. With this measure, Congress puts to rest the question of whether a claimant can be considered disabled for a period where she received SSDI. Clearly she can, it just means less money paid from the trust fund. In many cases, this will at least let me argue to the ALJ for an earlier onset than would’ve otherwise been allowed. Though this may not mean much in terms of back pay awarded, it could have a significant impact for claimants and how long they have to wait for Medicare.