By Peter Galvin, MD
The number of disabled Americans is rising, but the definition of disability depends on many factors. For example, who hasn’t seen people, perhaps coworkers, who call in sick when they have the sniffles and, conversely, other people who never miss work, even if they are at death’s doorstep? I’m sure you know someone who uses a walker or wheelchair yet still goes to work every day, and someone else who has a disability yet looks normal. Since Social Security (SS) is often a central factor in disability benefits, let’s start there. When Social Security was created in 1935 as part of FDR’s New Deal program, the U.S. was the only developed country without such a program. The idea was to help people create a savings fund for their retirement. At the time, very few non-government jobs included pensions. It was designed to curtail poverty in the elderly, and, as such, it was hugely successful. In 1954, a disability program was added to Social Security.
It is estimated that the Social Security program will be depleted by 2035. When people retire or reach an age that qualifies them for SS retirement (SSRI*) benefits, they begin drawing on monies they earned and deposited in the fund. SSRI is neither an entitlement nor a benefit. It’s their money. The depletion of the SS fund is occurring for several reasons. First, greedy politicians (an oxymoron?) saw all this money and used it to pay for things unrelated to SS. Secondly, the number of individuals receiving SS disability (SSDI*) benefits is rapidly rising. Many of these people start receiving benefits decades before they would be eligible for SSRI meaning they did not work and contribute to SS long enough to have it pay for itself, as SSRI does. So, the SS fund is no longer self-sustaining.
Now, back to disability. As an example, take a police officer who sustains a hand injury, making him unable to hold and fire his weapon. He receives a disability pension from the police department, but is he eligible for SS disability? There is no one answer for this question, because many arbitrators feel he can still be gainfully employed in a non-police job. And therein lies the problem of determining whether someone is fully disabled – unlike SSRI, SSDI determinations are subjective, not objective. With SSRI, if you are old enough and have contributed to the program, you are usually eligible for benefits. While there are some guidelines for determining disability, for example the American Board of Independent Medical Examiners (I was a member) trains healthcare professionals to determine the extent of an individual’s disability using their guidelines, the examiner’s opinion and experiences play a large part.
Let’s say our police officer gets SSDI. His nosy neighbor (Rockaway has many) sees him on a ladder cleaning his gutters and reports him. So, he goes back to be re-examined and his disability status is upheld. Now his neighbor is enraged and writes his congressman about “the incompetent government wasting taxpayer money by sending monthly checks to a guy who is clearly not disabled.” The congressman then sponsors a bill to “fix” the SS disability program. And so on and so on……
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*SSRI and SSDI are my abbreviations, not official acronyms.