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In Its Final Weeks, the Trump Administration Makes It Harder Than Ever for Disabled Americans to Get and Keep Their Social Security Disability Benefits

With only a few weeks left, the Trump Administration has upended a number of rules to make it harder to receive (and even keep) Social Security disability benefits. The White House announced a number of sweeping changes to reduce the number of people on Social Security and to save about $2.5 billion a year.

Some of the biggest new changes to Social Security are:

  • Stricter requirements for back impairments: One of the most prevalent disabilities we see are disabling back impairments, particularly those involving the lower (“lumbar”) spine. But under new rules effective starting April 21, 2021, the government will no longer grant benefits to people who are unable to walk effectively due to low back impairments. Now, you have to prove you have to use some prosthetic device that prohibits you from using either arm. So a one-handed walker or cane apparently isn’t enough. What’s more, the rules say that all of the necessary medical findings have to be documented within a 4-month time period—despite a court of appeals ruling that rejected that position! See Radford v. Colvin, 734 F.3d 288 (4th Cir. 2013). Although the Administration used to abide by that appeals court ruling, they’ve changed their mind. Understandably, several people have objected to these changes. However, the Administration responded that, “even if in some cases (although not all) the revised rule results in more [denials], we still have a statutory obligation to ensure the listings are up to date. . . .” Despite the White House’s focus on achieving ‘progress,’ we suspect this will have a devastating effect on millions of Americans for decades to come.
  • More continuing disability reviews: As hardas it now is to receive disability, keeping those benefits is not getting easier. The program has, for some time, conducted ongoing disability reviews to verify SSDI recipients are disabled. That makes sense. But it doesn’t make sense why the Trump Administration has decided to increase the frequency of those reviews, particularly when the Administration freely admits that disability fraud is so rare as to be virtually nonexistent. Increasing the frequency of these reviews will increases the chances the SSDI recipients have their benefits suddenly taken away. And once taken away, the individual has a very short window of time to appeal. And if they miss the deadline, they’ll probably have to reapply—under standards that are unimaginably more stringent then when they were first awarded.
  • Judge replacement: Previously, if you applied for disability and you were denied twice by the local State agency, you had the right to present your case before an Administrative law judge, or “ALJ” who provided a full hearing for you to present your case. This was beneficial for a lot of people because the ALJ was often familiar with the local community, including the local health resources (or lack thereof), and he or she knew what kind of hardships the community faced. Well, that’s not necessarily the case anymore. The Trump administration has now decided that far-removed appeals judges (who have no familiarity with the community) can now, apparently at whim, step in and conduct the hearing instead of the ALJ. And if that Appeals Council judge deprives the applicant of a fair hearing, guess who gets to decide the appeal? That’s right, another Appeals Council judge! Does that sound unfair? Well, the government assures us that they’ll be fair—‘trust us.’ Call us skeptics, but when the Appeals Council’s stated goal is to deny over 80% of every disability appeal it receives,we’re a little doubtful.

With both of these program changes, it can be assumed that thousands – if not millions – of Americans with disabilities will have a more difficult time obtaining and keeping SSDI benefits. The decision also comes in the midst of a global pandemic, making it all the more worrisome. COVID-19 complications have already been proven to have a chance of causing new and permanent disabilities among people who recover from the virus, including but not limited to asthma and an increased risk of stroke.

Apply Now while You Can

For anyone who is unable to work due to a medical condition, there is no better time than right to apply for benefits. Some of these changes won’t start the spring of next year, which means that applications filed before then will have at least some benefit of the previous standards. If you have not recently, connect with a local SSD or SSI attorney to review your case and see about applying for benefits.

People living in Dallas and Fort Worth can count on Coats & Todd for reliable and compassionate legal representation and guidance. We can help protect your disability benefits from unreasonable denials or removals that might be more likely now that ALJs are to be replaced by SSA lawyers and continuing disability reviews will become more frequent. Call 1-800-856-1031 or contact us online to learn more about our legal services.