Rokita Introduces Reforms to SSDI

Our McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative shows the importance of improving the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and puts forward a number of options to achieve this goal. Representative Todd Rokita (R-IN) recently introduced his own plan to reform SSDI, which is certainly a welcome addition to this important discussion.

Rokita's Making DI Work For All Americans Act of 2018 includes a number of proposals, both big and small, designed to reform administration of the program, improve determination rules, enhance Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs), and modify the program's benefit design.

Administrative Changes: The Rokita bill would make several changes to SSDI's administration, including by requiring the Social Security Administration (SSA) to examine "outlier Administrative Law Judges [ALJs]" that award benefits far more often than other ALJs, requiring the Administration to figure out how many ALJs would be needed to alleviate the large hearings backlog, applying the judicial code of conduct to ALJs (they currently operate under the administrative code of conduct), and eliminating the reconsideration stage of SSDI determination. It would also disallow "double-dipping," which is when beneficiaries receive both SSDI and unemployment benefits in the same month.

Eligibility Determinations: Though Rokita's proposal would not change the nature of who is eligible for SSDI, it would enact some long overdue changes to the way eligibility is determined. Specifically, the bill would require SSA to update the medical-vocational guidelines (also known as the "grids") and the dictionary of occupations to account for changes in the economy, types of jobs available, and the nature of work. The bill would also allow disability examiners to consider social media profiles in considering whether applicants are eligible for benefits in the initial determination stage.

Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs): Once an individual begins collecting SSDI benefits, the agency conducts ongoing CDRs to ensure the individual is still unable to work. As a general rule, a person will remain on SSDI unless they return to the workforce on their own or experience demonstrable medical improvement. Rokita's bill would require a study on the Medical Improvement Review Standard (MIRS) to assess whether it adequately determines if an individual is able to return to work. The bill would also adopt a Social Security Advisory Board recommendation to improve training around the current exceptions to MIRS. In addition, the bill would increase the frequency of CDRs and require better communication with regard to the temporary nature of SSDI benefits.

Benefit Changes: Perhaps the most ambitious and significant change in Rokita's proposal is to transform all new disability benefits into flat anti-poverty benefits, pegged at the federal poverty level. It would also reduce retroactive benefit payments from 12 months to six months (a proposal also in the President's budget) and include all unearned income in the calculation of substantial gainful activity (the amount of income used to determine whether people with disabilities are entitled to benefits).

Rokita's Making DI Work For All Americans Act of 2018 makes an important contribution to the SSDI debate. The McCrery-Pomeroy SSDI Solutions Initiative's book, SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program, includes its own proposals and suggestions to reform program administration, improve eligibility rules, fix CDRs, and adjust benefits. We've also recently announced newly commissioned papers for phase II of this project, and we've been excited by renewed focus on the issue from the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and the White House.

It is our hope that policymakers can move from studying and proposing ideas to beginning to implement them. Thoughtful changes can benefit the SSDI trust fund, workers with disabilities, and the broader economy.