In March 2001, the Social Security Administration (SSA) released the most current figures available on total spending on Social Security Disability Insurance and disability-related Supplemental Security Income benefits in Mississippi.
In 1999, SSA sent $103.703 million in monthly disability payments to Mississippi, up from 1991’s figure of $55.534 million.
The money goes to a total of 117,220 Mississippi Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries (workers who paid into the Social Security system and are paid out of Social Security trust funds) and 107,081 Mississippi Supplemental Security Insurance recipients (payments made out of the general funds in the federal entitlement program). The total number of federal disability recipients is not the sum of the two groups; some beneficiaries qualify for both programs and receive money from both funds.
“The economic impact in Mississippi is significant,” said Sue Heflin dryly.
Heflin, from Brandon, is a branch supervisor for the statewide agency that processes all disability applicants for the Social Security disability programs, called Disability Determination Services (DDS). She has had a prime opportunity to observe the changes in Social Security policy as it affects disability programs over her 21 years with the agency.
But for the past year, her role as president of the National Association of Disability Examiners (NADE) has made her input valuable in the national conversation about Social Security as baby boomers reach not only retirement age, but what Heflin calls “their most disability prone years.”
In recent testimony on June 28, 2001, to the Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security, Heflin, speaking for NADE, said, “The Social Security Administration spends two-thirds of its administrative budget, nearly $5 billion, on the disability programs. Such a large expenditure justifies extensive oversight.”
The NADE is an organization of personnel involved in adjudicating claims submitted to Social Security. Although SSA employees, various disability claims advocates and medical doctors belong, most members are employees of the Disability Determination Services that assess if applicants are medically eligible for disability income. Social Security employees, on the other hand, determine if applicants meet financial eligibility requirements.
Heflin said that this particular subcommittee has plans to hold further hearings on the disability portion of the Social Security Administration; Heflin’s organization has already provided further information to amplify the testimony given to Chairman E. Clay Shaw. Heflin notes that feedback from their members and officers, gathered as Heflin travels to regional NADE meetings, pinpoints some of the critical issues that need to be further addressed by Social Security and by Congress.
The effect of baby boomers on the Social Security retirement program
has been well documented, with dates being given each year as to how quickly the baby boomers will exhaust Social Security funds. Estimates quoted in The NADE Advocate, NADE’s membership newsletter, indicate that SSA can expect over one million extra cases per year as the baby boomers grow older. However, Heflin notes another challenge the baby boomers will bring about when they retire — increased retirements of career SSA and DDS employees without enough younger workers to replace them — during a simultaneous jump in the rate of disability applications.
Nationwide, of all disability examiners at the DDSs, over 50% have been employed in that capacity for less than two years. According to Heflin, the rate of retirement and the strong economy offer better opportunity to disability examiners.
Heflin, employed by the State of Mississippi since November 1980, is only four years from being able to retire under the Public Employees’ Retirement System and is typical of supervisors in her agency, some of whom are closing in on 30 years of state service.
Becoming a member of Mississippi’s NADE chapter three months after being hired, Heflin has served in leadership positions at the local level, hosting the 1986 National NADE Conference in Jackson when she was chapter president. She moved to regional and national offices in the organization, including the certification committee chair, awards committee chair, regional chair and was most recently voted in as president-elect at the national conference in Denver in 1999.
Over her tenure in the disability program, Heflin has seen the effects of politics on the administration of the program. She moved almost immediately after training into a program newly instituted by the Reagan administration — reviewing cases of people already drawing Social Security disability benefits, called Continuing Disability Reviews.
As states started ceasing benefits to people who were judged able to work, public outcry began to grow.
“The ‘80s are when it got really politicized,” Heflin said.
In 1984, just as Heflin finished training for a promotion that involved working exclusively with the continuing disability reviews, the Reagan administration ended the reviews until further notice, which came intermittently in the next few years. Various welfare reform laws of the mid-90s ushered in a whole new set of reviews of benefits to children and benefits to those with alcohol-related disabilities, as well as re-instituting reviews of current beneficiaries.
Litigation has had an effect on Social Security casework, with the Supreme Court ruling in Zebley vs. SSA being the most famous — most of whose provisions were repealed by the 1996 welfare reform laws. However, Heflin notes that Supreme Court decisions are not as much of a problem as they could be. After applicants exhaust their appeals with SSA’s Appeals Council, they can appeal to federal court if still not in agreement with SSA’s finding of “not disabled.”
SSA does not often fight these court decisions, resulting in what are called “acquiescence rulings.” “Thus these policies become mandatory in a handful of states in a particular circuit. Because there are numerous…rulings, and because the federal judicial circuits do not correspond to SSA regions, even states within the same region have different (rules),” Heflin said in NADE’s additional written testimony.
NADE advocates a system of regulations that applies in all jurisdictions and is binding on anyone that processes disability applications, Heflin said.
More importantly are changes in the regulations in anticipation of class-action lawsuits; recent changes to evaluation of mental impairments came out of a Chicago Region lawsuit, while the rising tide of rulings indicating that SSA did not evaluate subjective medical complaints properly resulted in various new initiatives being implemented with mixed success.
Contact MBJ contributing writer at Julie Whitehead at firstname.lastname@example.org or (601) 364-1018.