SSA Disability Programs:

Progress and Challenges Related to Modernizing

GAO-12-891T: Published: Sep 14, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 14, 2012.

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What GAO Found

We found that SSA has taken concrete steps to incorporate modern concepts of disability into its determination criteria, but faces constraints to more fully considering assistive devices and workplace accommodations.

  • Giving greater consideration to a claimant's functional capacity: SSA has begun taking a more modern view of disability that looks beyond the claimant's medical condition by giving greater consideration to his or her functional capacity, consistent with the International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) framework. In updates to some of its medical criteria, SSA has included an assessment of an individual's functional abilities to determine whether his or her impairment prevents work. For example, as part of SSA's comprehensive revision to the medical listings for the immune system, the agency included several functional criteria, such as performing activities of daily living, maintaining social functioning, and completing tasks in a timely manner despite deficiencies in concentration or persistence. Generally, SSA officials, adjudicators, and disability experts we spoke with support incorporating appropriate functional criteria into the medical listings to facilitate a more reliable assessment of an individual's ability to work. However, some have also noted that including functional criteria may result in a more subjective assessment by adjudicators because functional evidence is inherently more subjective than medical evidence, which in turn could increase the difficulty of making consistent disability determinations.

  • Sponsoring research on functional capacity and disability determinations: Since 2008, SSA has had an interagency agreement with the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct short- and long-term research to inform SSA's efforts to incorporate functional information into its disability criteria. For example, SSA is sponsoring longer-term NIH research to develop a computer-based tool to rapidly and reliably assess the functional abilities of individual claimants for disability determinations. SSA and NIH officials anticipate several benefits from the functional assessment tool, such as providing more consistent and comprehensive information on the impact of functional limitations earlier in the disability determination process. This information may help adjudicators more quickly, accurately, and uniformly assess whether a person can perform certain kinds of work given his or her functional and occupational capabilities. While this research is promising, SSA officials said they have not yet determined when or how the tool will be integrated into the disability determination process. SSA officials said they expect to pilot the functional assessment tool by 2016.

Although these steps are promising, SSA has not fully incorporated other modern concepts of disability into its disability determinations. A modern view of disability takes into account factors that can hinder or enhance an individual's ability to function, such as assistive devices or accommodations that can mitigate barriers.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses the future of the Social Security disability programs. The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages two of the largest federal disability benefit programs--Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income--which provided more than $178 billion in payments to about 14.5 million people with disabilities and their families in fiscal year 2011. Given the extensive size and cost of its disability programs, SSA must have current and appropriate criteria by which to assess whether a claimant's medical conditions affect his or her ability to perform work in the national economy. However, in our previous work we designated federal disability programs as high risk, in part because the programs do not reflect a modern concept of disability. Specifically, we noted that SSA's disability programs emphasize medical conditions in assessing work incapacity without adequate consideration of the work opportunities afforded by advances in medicine, technology, and job demands. In addition, we found that the medical criteria and occupational information SSA uses to make disability benefit decisions were out of date. In contrast, modern concepts of disability take into account the interaction of health conditions and contextual factors--such as products, technology, attitudes, and services--on an individual's functional capacity, rather than viewing disability solely as a medical or biological issue. Such concepts also focus on an individual's functional abilities in, for example, the workplace environment, taking into consideration the presence or lack of assistance. Experts also have noted that SSA's process should give more consideration to an individual's ability to function with an impairment, and whether the individual can work if given appropriate supports.

These remarks are based on our June 2012 report, and focus on steps SSA has taken to incorporate a modern view of disability into its criteria.

For more information, contact Daniel Bertoni at 202-512-7215 or bertonid@gao.gov.

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