The Pros and Cons of Subjectivity’s Role in Disability Decisions
In 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act into law. The Reform Act was designed to work in favor of disability claimants by altering the disability screening process and making it harder for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to deny benefits to injured workers with legitimate claims. It did so primarily by placing more weight on subjective evidence (such as pain) and less on quantitative or “hard” medical criteria in the disability decision-making process.
So, what did all of this really mean? Because The Social Security Disability Benefits Reform Act modified the disability screening process and the criteria for eligibility, subjectivity began to play a much larger role in disability decisions. Self-reporting and other opinion-based types of evidence now received more consideration than they ever had. As a result, more injured workers became eligible for benefits they had rightfully earned (where before, their particular impairments were not considered severe enough to qualify them for disability benefits).
However, for all the good it has done, subjectivity has also led to a host of logistical problems, such as drastically increasing numbers of SSDI recipients (including younger workers), inconsistencies in the decisions made on the same case but at different decision levels, and a higher incidence of fraud.
The bipartisan House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee recently held several hearings on subjectivity in the disability decision process in order to determine whether or not it has become too important in deciding disability claims. Expert witnesses testified on both sides of the issue of subjectivity. However, all parties acknowledged that further consideration of the question, and perhaps some reworking of the existing legislation and SSA screening criteria in order to ensure greater consistency and less fraud could benefit the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, and future claimants, as the SSA responds to changing times and shifting workforce demographics.