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SSA announces changes to process, rules for SSD appellate judges

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, the Social Security Administration is making some changes that could ultimately have an impact on Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income applicants. One is a new task force set to find out whether widespread conspiracies exist among doctors and lawyers to help clients fraudulently obtain SSD benefits.

That seems unlikely, but the agency is under pressure due to recent increases in SSD beneficiaries. As we discussed recently, the SSA has long expected this growth, and the Government Accountability Office recently confirmed the increase is the result of simple demographics.

Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal reports the agency plans to tighten up supervision over its administrative law judges, or ALJs, who hear SSDI and SSI appeals. Most ALJs at the Social Security Administration handle 500 to 700 cases a year -- around two every day -- which many contend is far too many to allow a full review.

Yet the report says the Social Security Administration will no longer be treating its ALJs like other federal judges, but will subject them to extensive supervision and discipline. Judges whose approval rates differ substantially from their peers will be offered additional training. The change is presented as a way to ensure consistency among SSD benefits awards.

Finally, the agency has announced that updates are underway to the manuals it uses in determining applicants’ vocational abilities, which is crucial to whether they qualify for SSD benefits. In addition to having a disabling mental or physical disability, SSD applicants must also be unable to perform substantial, meaningful work. Whether an individual can do so depends both on the nature of the disability and on what kind of work they might still be qualified to do, if they can’t do the type of work they once did.

The manuals haven’t been updated for decades, meaning that, for example, many technology jobs didn’t even exist when they were new. However, the manuals are complex massive -- containing more than 10,000 separate job descriptions, among other items. Updating them will take years, and the agency estimates the new manuals won’t be ready until 2016, at the earliest.

If you have questions about the process of applying for Social Security disability, we are happy to help. You can also find a lot of information on the Social Security Administration’s website,

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Six Changes Social Security is Making to its Disability Program,” Damian Peletta, Dec. 26, 2013

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