Sen. Lankford's SSDI Amendment Continues Progress on Improving the Program

Nov 2, 2015 | Social Security

During last week's debate on the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) offered up an amendment making many further changes to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program beyond the ones already included in the law.

Sen. Lankford's amendment contained a number of well-known ideas for improving the program, including some presented by the McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative. Among the changes are:

  • Updating the medical-vocational "grids" for evaluating an applicant's ability to work. The amendment requires that the grids be updated at least every 10 years, that they accurately reflect the composition of the national economy, and that they greatly reduce the use of age as a factor for younger applicants. These changes would be used make the grids more useful in helping to determine an applicant's Residual Functional Capacity, or their ability to perform work.
  • Restricting beneficiaries from collecting both Unemployment Insurance and Disability Insurance. This is also known as the "Double-Dipping" provision, and it was included in the President's budget. Enacting this would reconcile the fact that SSDI beneficiaries are unable to perform substantial work and thus would not be eligible for unemployment benefits, which are only supposed to go to those who are looking for work.
  • Eliminating the reconsideration level of disability appeals. This gets rid of the second step in disability appeals, which has already been eliminated in 10 states. Instead, applicants with unfavorable initial determinations would appeal directly to an Administrative Law Judge hearing. For more information about the disability determination and appeals process, see "The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Program – The Determination & Appeals Process."
  • Enacting various changes to the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) level of disability appeals. This includes changing what evidence ALJs can use to make a determination by making sure that only licensed, unsanctioned physicians who are not currently under investigation can provide medical evidence. It would also add rules of procedure for ALJ hearings, require additional training for ALJs on how to determine if a worker is disabled, and get rid of the "controlling weight" in medical evidence review that is given to an applicant's preferred physician.
  • Creating a new office in the Social Security Administration (SSA) to standardize and enforce the Medical Improvement Review Standard (MIRS). The office would also be tasked with collecting data and reviewing disability determinations while training SSA employees on proper application of MIRS. Such changes would make medical determinations more uniform across the country rather than the current standards that can vary by state.

In a speech on the Senate floor, Sen. Lankford said the following of his amendment:

The CBO has warned us for four years that social security disability would reach insolvency in 2016, so my office has spent the last three years preparing, how could we actually reform this program to make sure that we stabilize the social security disability program? I've interviewed individuals within the disability program, attorneys that work with it, federal judges, administrative law judges, representatives, social security staff in all the cubicles across the social security administration office, advocacy groups, parents of the disabled. We did bipartisan hearings to look for common-ground solutions and work with the inspector general and the GAO to hear other practical solutions that they had discovered. 

We have a long list of real solutions to solve social security disability for the disabled and for the taxpayer. We have submitted those solutions as an amendment to this bill, because there are real answers to be able to solve social security disability if you do the work, which we have actually done the work to prepare for this.

It is great to see Sen. Lankford continue the push for SSDI reform. These changes, in addition to many others in the areas of program administration, early intervention, structural reforms, and interactions with other programs, can help to improve the SSDI program for beneficiaries and taxpayers. Sen. Lankford's continued leadership on this issue is certainly appreciated, and we hope it continues. As SSDI Solutions Initiative Co-Chairs Jim McCrery and Earl Pomeroy said in their statement today, the reforms enacted by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 should be the beginning, not the end, of the SSDI conversation.