PITTSBURGH — A proposed change to federal disability assistance would result in millions of more case reviews, likely cutting off many disabled recipients if the changes are enacted.
The federal government is accepting public comments on the proposal until the end of January.
Under the proposal, millions more reviews would be conducted and hundreds of thousands of people would have reviews more frequently.
“We think the real intent of this is just to be a backdoor cut to the program,” said Jen Burdick, a supervising attorney with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who assists people applying for disability benefits.
Anyone applying for Social Security Disability Insurance, Supplemental Security Income or both already faces a lengthy and complex application process that can take years to complete. Once approved, recipients are already subject to what’s called continuing disability review.
The proposal would create an additional review category where cases would be reviewed every two years.
Social Security officials declined to comment; the agency does not comment on any proposed rule making or legislation.
Critics say the agency has failed to provide any evidence or data about why it selected who would be subject to the new category, and the additional reviews will be a hardship to disabled individuals. They also fear it will lead to people losing benefits — not because their conditions have improved and they can now work, but because of the administrative and paperwork hurdles it will create.
“While a requirement to complete paperwork and submit documentation at the risk of losing monetary benefits and health care would be challenging for anyone, it is likely more difficult, stressful, and time-consuming for disability beneficiaries, who as a group are older, poorer, and sicker than the general population,” wrote Barbara Silverstone, executive director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, which represents attorneys that represent claimants applying for disability benefits.
Those receiving such assistance often have barriers such as “unstable housing situations, intellectual disabilities, limited educations, inability to leave their homes, difficulty reading or writing, or other barriers to receiving, completing, and mailing back … documents.”
Among those who could face more frequent reviews are people like Sonya Schlegel of Westmoreland City. Schlegel was subject to a continuing disability review, which she won last year with the assistance of an attorney from Laurel Legal Services, but said it was a frustrating, demeaning, and nerve-racking process.
Marla Williams of West Mifflin sits inside her home with several medications that she needs to manage chronic asthma, congestive heart failure and other health concerns. Williams uses the state’s General Assistance program, which is scheduled to end Aug. 1.
“They don’t make it easy for you at all,” she said. She gets $783/month in SSI, which is her only income. Schlegel, who suffers from a brain injury and other ailments, said she doesn’t object to the idea of cases being reviewed, but said the ordeal dragged on for nearly two years, and it would have been more efficient if the agency could have just dealt with her doctor instead.
“They really put your mind in a fog. All you do is think about, ‘Are you going to have an income next month?’”
The proposal of the changes, described in the Federal Register, estimates it would amount to a $2.6 billion cut in benefits over 10 years, though it would add $1.8 billion in administrative costs.
Those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) can get a maximum of $783 monthly; Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits range from $800 to $1,800, the average monthly benefit is $1,258.
U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, R-Penn., who sits on the House Ways and Means Committee that has oversight over Social Security, said he is supportive of the proposal.
“The solvency and integrity of the Social Security program is of the utmost importance for current and future recipients,” he said in a statement. “Hardworking American taxpayers and businesses who fund the program deserve effective oversight of the money they contribute.
“The proposal to allow for more regular review of disability claims is the right one, because it will help the Social Security Administration protect against waste, fraud and abuse while ensuring that those in need receive the proper benefits.”
Some legislators have criticized the proposal for potentially making sweeping changes to what is already a complex process where fewer than four in 10 applicants qualify for benefits.
“I have serious concerns about this proposed rule, which appears to be yet another attempt by the Trump Administration to make it more difficult for people with disabilities’ to receive critical benefits,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, said in a statement.
In December, Casey, along with other legislators, signed a letter to the Social Security Administration asking for a 45-day extension of the public comment period; that request was denied.
Such reviews have “a long and troubled history,” the letter noted, referring to an effort in the early 1980s when President Ronald Reagan’s administration made aggressive use of them, leading Congress to intervene.