Social Security consultative examiner speaks out

Ever wonder what Social Security consultative examiners – the doctors who meet with disability applications to decide if they are disabled – think of the Social Security disability process?

Writing in Guernica, Dr. Heather Kovich discusses  her experiences as a (former) Social Security disability examiner:

There is also a stereotype of the doctors who do this work: lazy and disinterested. I found the job fascinating. The more I learned about the disability system, the more I pondered its complexities: it provides a safety net but keeps people mired in poverty. Helpful services, including job retraining, are available, but aren’t advertised. And the system rests on a deeply flawed premise””that there is a way to objectively determine who is able to work and who is not.

This was my job, “independent medical examiner.” On the basis of a forty-minute interview and examination, I was supposed to determine how disabled an applicant or “claimant” was. 

I did hundreds of disability exams over the next year, and while I did meet two people who were obviously faking, for the most part the stories I heard were heartbreaking: car accidents, massive strokes, lost jobs, dead spouses. Many people who apply for disability have lived through a tragedy. But the stories also told of the inefficiencies of the disability system. That first day in Spokane I met a man who had worked in manual labor his whole life, but for years had been getting crushing chest pain after walking a few blocks. His blood pressure was dangerously high. His condition was obviously treatable, but he did not have insurance so he had not been to a doctor in years. He knew that if he qualified for permanent disability he would eventually get Medicare or Medicaid and get proper treatment. He had no idea he could go to a community health center, a federally financed clinic where he could pay on a sliding-scale basis. With the right treatment and a less strenuous job, he would probably have not needed disability. Emphasis added.

This is the catch 22 of the Social Security system: with the health insurance Social Security provides, you might not be disabled. However, without Social Security disability, you can’t get the medical care you need.

This isn’t strictly a Social Security problem, it is US health system problem.

As of this year, Social Security is reportedly paying out more in benefits than it collects in revenue, putting pressure on the system to become more financially sustainable. Many economists propose stricter requirements for disability, letting far fewer people onto the rolls.

This is what happened in the Netherlands eight years ago: the Dutch tightened their criteria for disability and required employers to contribute to some of the disability payments. They were able to decrease the number of people on disability rolls by 15 percent (the U.S. has never seen any drop in disability recipients) and were able to show that those people had not simply transferred their needs to other government security programs, but were actually back at work. However, the Netherlands has a compulsory health insurance program, so the disabled, who have higher health care needs, were able to continue receiving health care no matter what type of employment they could find. Emphasis added.

This is just one topic covered in the article. Go and give it a read.

Photo by Ian Sane

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