About: Beth Laurence

Beth Laurence is a long-time Nolo editor and author. Beth is editor of Nolo's Guide to Social Security Disability and Social Security, Medicare & Goverment Pensions and the website popular website disabilitysecrets.com. Beth holds a law degree from University of California, Hastings College of the Law, a B.A. degree from Boston University (Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude), and is a member of the California State Bar. While at Hastings, she helped persons with disabilities in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco apply for and win Social Security and SSI disability benefits from the SSA. Over the last decade, she has been active on the board of directors of several local environmental and educational nonprofit organizations.

Recent Posts by Beth Laurence

How Can the VA Reduce a 100%, Stabilized Rating?

This week’s blog post is answered by guest blogger Margaret Wadsworth, a regular contributor to Nolo and an attorney accredited by the VA to represent veterans.

Question: The VA has reduced my benefits. I am more than confident that this action is retaliation. Their reason for the reduction is ridiculous. The one examination I went to does not even come close to showing any change in my hand disability.

I have acquired federal regulations that specifically explain the rules of reducing a veteran’s disability compensation benefit. It appears the VA has bypassed these rules, in a hasty manner. The exam letter I received advised me that the comp and pension exam I would need to go to was just at the beginning of the very next week. And less than two months after the exam that they claimed was ordered as a mistake, I received a decision that my benefits would be lowered substantially.

The rating they reduced from 100% to 0% was a protected rating. It was protected as a stabilized rating, which has been at the same level for five years. It is also protected as a 100% rating, which can be reduced only after a re-examination has found there is a material improvement in the disability, and a material improvement in ability to function in life and work.

Furthermore, under 38 CFR 3.327(b)(2), the VA can’t send you to a re-examination if the disability has been as established as static or is of a permanent nature with no likelihood of improvement when the veteran’s symptoms haven’t shown improvement for five years or more.

I believe that this action is clearly retaliation for my self-advocating while attempting to attain a customized VA letter. I made an accommodation request for the letter, due to fact that the letter they wanted to provide me would not be equally beneficial to me as they are to other parties requesting special letters from the VA. Under laws I can make a section 504 request verbally, as I did. This accommodation request is a protected action under ADA law.

I don’t have time to go over the many past incidents I have had with the VA (one involving me initiating an ethics review. Even recently, I have had a request in for a new power wheelchair for over a year now. I have gotten nothing. I have been forced to use my one manual chair, because it’s all I have. The chronic soreness I feel throughout my body has risen dramatically since using a manual chair. It seems ironic that the evidence the VA is utilizing to reduce my benefits relies heavily on my use of a manual wheelchair, when I have been requesting a power chair from them for over a year now.

Answer: Thank you for your service, and I am sorry to hear of the ordeal you are going through.

If your disability is “static”, meaning there is no medical possibility whatsoever of any improvement, or if your disability has not improved at all in five years or longer, then the VA made an error in ordering a reexamination. However, although you have had your rating for five years, it receives only limited protection. For example, if your symptoms have shown medical improvement during those five years, and that medical improvement was more than temporary and lasted for a sustained period of time, the VA had the right to request the reexamination. But in such a situation, benefits can be reduced only if the reexamination report and your full medical history support the finding that the improvement is more than temporary.

Since the VA ordered a reexamination, the VA may have believed your condition had medically improved such that a reexamination was necessary to determine whether a decrease in your service-connected disability compensation was warranted. Since you were sent notice of this exam, even though the notice was very short, you were required to either reschedule or attend the exam in order to protect your benefit rate.

If for any reason you couldn’t attend the reexamination, the VA would have had the legal right to reduce and/or terminate your benefits, regardless of your disability rating or the fact that you had this rating for five years. Although generally a rating of 100% cannot be reduced unless the VA finds that your disability has materially improved and your ability to function in your life and work has increased, any rating can be reduced for failure to appear at, or reschedule, a reexamination.

If you attended the required reexamination, then your benefits were likely reduced based on the VA doctor’s finding that your condition had materially improved, as discussed above. You may want to contact a VA-certified attorney to evaluate the doctor’s report to determine if it is sufficient. Sometimes VA doctors do not have access to your full medical history when conducting a reexamination, in which case you can challenge the report. You can also challenge the report if it’s not thorough.

I would advise you to consult with a veterans disability attorney in order to have your case file reviewed for errors and to consider an appeal.

Regarding your request for a power wheelchair, I recommend you seek that assistance of a local Veterans Service Officer. See the VA Directory of VSO’s to find assistance in your area by visiting www. va.gov/vso/.

Regarding your Americans with Disabilities Act Section 504 request, I also recommend that you consult with a disability attorney to determine what your rights are and how to protect your interests. Good luck.

Margaret Wadsworth

Should I be worried about my upcoming disability review?

Question: I have been receiving disability for seven years and have received a letter saying Social Security does routine audits every three to seven years. Should I be concerned? Also, hearing in the news about the recent “billions of dollars paid to public who should have not qualified,” will this make it more difficult to be re-approved or have my case looked at more closely than normal? I figured you would prefer the long story short, so didn’t provide the particulars.

Answer: Social Security periodically reviews the condition of all Social Security disability recipients to confirm they still fit the definition of disabled – that is, that they are still unable to work. These reviews are called continuing disability reviews. So the letter you received is just routine.

Social Security should have sent you a disability award letter when you were approved for benefits, and that letter should have stated when you could expect your first review. If Social Security found that it was possible, though not necessarily likely, that your medical condition could improve, then your file would have been set for a three-year review. If Social Security didn’t expect your condition to improve, your file would have been set for a seven-year review. Generally, the files of disability recipients over 55 receive reviews less frequently than the above timeline. And in recent years, Social Security’s lack of funding has allowed the agency to do far fewer reviews than technically required.

But unless your condition has improved enough for you to work, a continuing disability review is not much to worry about. You won’t have to prove your disability over again. Instead, to terminate your benefits, Social Security would have to prove that there has been medical improvement in your condition – that is, that the severity of your impairment has become less severe. Also, the medical improvement in your condition must relate to your ability to work. In practical terms, this requirement means that you must have more residual functional capacity (RFC) than you had when your disability benefits were approved. If your RFC hasn’t changed (say you still can’t sit or stand for more than six hours), your benefits can’t be terminated. Social Security must also find that there is some kind of substantial gainful activity (full-time work) that you could do.

There are exceptions to these rules – such as Social Security finding there was a clear error or fraud in the original decision –  but in actuality, only about 5% of disability recipients lose benefits after a review. And no, while there may be more scrutiny on initial disability decision in the near future, unless policy and regulations are changed regarding disability reviews, it won’t be more difficult to pass a review because of the political climate.

To read further, see our article on how likely it is your benefits will be terminated after a review and the frequency of disability reviews.

Would waiting until age 62 help me get Social Security disability benefits?

Question: I applied for SSDI at age 60, shortly before my 61st birthday. My appeal hearing before the ALJ is apt to take place in early 2015, a few months before my 62nd birthday, in May 2015. I’m confused about how my benefits might be calculated — and whether it’s better to have waited age 62 (or not). So far, I’m handling my application pro se. Any information or guidance you give me about this would be much appreciated.

Answer: Age 62 is important for the purpose of Social Security retirement, since it’s the age of eligibility for early retirement benefits, but it’s not so important for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) benefits. In fact, depending on the severity of your medical condition, Social Security may or may not take your age into account when deciding whether you are disabled.

If you meet the requirements of one of Social Security’s official disability listings, Social Security won’t look at your age at all. Likewise, if you have a physical impairment that doesn’t allow you to do even sit-down work, of any kind, Social Security won’t consider your age. Similarly, if you have a mental impairment that limits you so much that you can’t do even simple, routine work, Social Security won’t care what age you are.

However, if you have a physical impairment that limits you to doing medium, light or sedentary work, then you are much more likely to be found disabled if you are 60 or older. Social Security considers disability applicants 60 or older to be “closely approaching retirement age,” and for those over 60 who don’t have any job skills that they could transfer to less strenuous work, they are eligible to be found disabled under the “medical-vocational grid rules.” These grid rules take into account an applicant’s age, education, job history, and physical capacity to determine whether he or she is disabled.

For instance, if you are over age 60 and your doctor has limited you to light work (lifting no more than 10 pounds frequently and standing and walking no more than 6 hours per day), you’ll be found disabled – as long as Social Security finds you can’t do your previous job and you don’t have job skills or recent job training that you can use at another type of job. The same is true for those over 60 with a limitation to sedentary work. See Nolo’s article on getting SSDI after age 60 for more examples.

But the grid rules for closely approaching retirement age apply equally to everyone between the ages of 60 and 66. So while being 59 and on the cusp of turning 60 can be important to a disability decision, the difference in applying for disability between the ages of age 61 and 62 is not.

And it’s almost always in your favor to apply for disability benefits sooner than later, because you can only get retroactive benefits going back a year before you apply (if you were disabled before that).

COLA Increases Social Security in 2015

Social Security has announced that there will be a 1.7% increase in Social Security and SSI benefits for 2015. This is just a bit higher than the cost of living adjustment (COLA) in 2014, which was 1.5%. Along with this increase in benefits, many important Social Security limits and Medicare fees will change on January 1, 2015.

The average Social Security retirement and disability benefit is expected to increase to $1,328, the average disability benefit to $1,165, and the average surviving spouse benefit to $1,274. The most Social Security benefits a retiree can collect in 2015 will be $2,663 per month (but most people collect less than this).

If you continue to work while collecting early Social Security retirement benefits, your benefits will be reduced by $1 for every $2 you make over $1,310 per month. But if you will turn 66 during 2015, you can make up to $3,490 per month before your benefits are reduced (there is no limit once you turn 66).

The maximum amount of your income that is subject to the Social Security tax to fund Social Security retirement, survivors, and dependents benefits, as well as Social Security disability insurance, is $118,500 in 2015. There is no limit to the amount of income subject to the Medicare tax.

As to SSI, the new federal SSI benefit rate is $733 per month for an individual and $1,100 per month for a couple. The SSI payment amounts are higher in states that pay a supplementary SSI payment. Although some states have higher limits, in states without a supplementary payment, if you have income between $733 and $1,551, your SSI payment will be reduced, and over $1,551, your SSI will be terminated.

As far as determining your initial eligibility for disability purposes, in 2015 you must be making less than $1,090 per month to qualify for benefits, or $1,820 if you are blind. If you receive SSDI and are trying to go back to work, if you make more than $780 per month, it will count as one of your nine trial work months.

Note there is no increase in the Medicare Part B premiums and deductibles for 2015. However, there are some increases in the Part A and D deductibles. See Nolo’s 2015 update on Medicare for the details.

Can recent work hurt my chances for getting disability for anxiety?

Question: I have not worked consistently since October 2006. My anxiety and depression  and who knows what else is wrong with me have been the main factors in maintaining or seeking employment. I thought maybe working with people, under structure, and on a schedule might have contributed to a lot of my work apprehension. This summer I decided to do a freelance type project, by launching a crowdfunding project to produce a small video. The project raised about $11,000, and more than half of it went to expenses. 

This was a test for my condition that I failed. It was more than I could handle; it was overwhelming to complete the tasks the way I would have liked. I had anxiety so bad I couldn’t travel to film the video myself and had to pay someone to do it. I ended up in the ER on September 1 over stressing about it all and I thought I was having a heart attack due to chest pains or brain issues. Doc said anxiety.

That was clear proof for me that even working independently and free of traditional structure would not be good enough for my conditions. What is the date I can tell them I officially became disabled? This past September when I was in the ER is the date I was thinking of putting down.

Also, does my work this past summer make me ineligible, because you can’t make more than $1,070 a month? Or would the $11,000 not matter because I’d be listing my official disability date after I earned that money? I didn’t make any income in September or October.

Having no insurance, I don’t have much medical records. Just two records of visits to the ER for anxiety this year. And if I dig hard, could find the doc who said depression and anxiety years ago.

I’m just wondering how much my “work” this summer will affect their decision.

Answer: To qualify for Social Security disability, you must have a condition that prevents you from doing a substantial amount of work (generally, making more than $1,070), and you cannot have done a substantial amount of work after the date you became disabled. The date you put down on your application is called your “alleged onset date” of disability. If you put down a date of September 1, the work you did this summer won’t cause a technical denial of your disability application, but Social Security will look at your past work when it assesses your ability to do basic work-related tasks.

But you did call your work “a test for your condition that failed.” If Social Security treats the work activity as an “unsuccessful work attempt,” then you could try for an onset date that’s earlier than September 1. If you worked for under three months, and you quit because your medical condition made it impossible for you to do the work, your activity can qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt. However, if you choose an onset date after the last day you worked, it can be simpler for Social Security to approve your claim.

That said, you will be facing an uphill battle getting disability benefits because it is difficult to get approved for anxiety or depression without any physical impairments. You will need to prove that you have severe anxiety and/or depression, and that there is NO work you can handle, not even the most simple, unskilled low-stress type of job. (Read more about getting disability benefits for anxiety or depression.)

In addition, your lack of medical records does not help your case. You would be in a better position to prove your disability if you start going to a therapist at least once a month. And it would be best if the therapist can eventually fill out a mental residual functional capacity report (MRFC form) about you, listing the activities you can’t do (such as interacting with the public, performing activities within a schedule, and responding appropriately to criticism from supervisors). If you can’t afford to see a psychologist or psychiatrist, Social Security will send you to a consulting doctor or psychologist for a mental consultative exam, but a single consultative report is not likely to be helpful to your case.

Since you don’t have insurance, you should apply for Medicaid, which can pay for office visits but also show that you have tried to get medical treatment for your condition. The same is true for contacting community organizations that may provide free or low-cost services.

It’s also important to continue to try to get treatment the entire time your claim is pending to show the seriousness of your disorder. And yes, it could help if you could dig up the records from the doctor who diagnosed you with anxiety and depression years ago. It can help your case for Social Security to know how long your impairments have lasted, and to show why you haven’t been able to work much for the past eight years.

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