Trump seeks to bring back Social Security rule changes, one of Reagan's worst ideas
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The Trump administration is proposing regulations that will hurt many of our most vulnerable fellow citizens. These regulations would increase the frequency and toughen the process for Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) for those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income. If finalized, these regulations will harm beneficiaries in a way which has not been seen since the Reagan administration purge of the disability rolls in the 1980s.

The eligibility criteria for disability benefits is one of the most restrictive in the developed world. The burden is on the individuals applying for benefits to demonstrate that they have such significant disabilities that they cannot support themselves through work doing any work anywhere in the nation. The benefits, which include health insurance, are lifesaving for those who receive them.

In the early 1980s, the Reagan administration, through sub-regulatory guidelines, changed the burden of proof for those already having qualified for disability benefits. With this change, they needed to prove a negative: that they had not medically improved sufficiently to no longer qualify for benefits. But the states (which determine disability for the Social Security Administration) and the federal courts (up to the Supreme Court) stepped in to modify and stop the harmful policy.

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After several years of hardship and negative headlines, Congress enacted legislation, the Disability Benefits Reform Act of 1984. This law created a medical improvement standard and placed the burden back on the Social Security Administration (SSA) to prove that beneficiaries and recipients had improved to the point that they were no longer eligible for benefits.

What the country learned in the 1980s was that SSA needs to be more transparent in its decision-making process in making changes to the CDR process. If after careful consideration, and discussions with stakeholders, Congress, and the states, it is decided to make changes to the frequency of the CDRs, then SSA needs to temper and slowly implement the changes.

Unfortunately, what we are seeing in the Trump administration proposed regulations are similar mistakes to those made in the 1980s, as well as changes which violate congressional intent when the 1984 amendments were enacted.

The proposed regulations subvert the regulatory oversight and stakeholder involvement under the Administrative Procedures Act. In fact, there is a specific section in the 1984 law on the use of uniform standards because of the way the Reagan administration was using sub-regulatory guidelines.

The guidelines were never intended to be a place where the public could access information, which is what the proposed regulations would now do. The guidelines are cumbersome, difficult to read and are for the use of SSA and State Disability Determination Services in administering the program. Regulations are intended for the general public to read and understand the program as well as to provide the ability for the public to comment on changes.

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The increase in the frequency of the CDRs is another example of the Trump administration making the same mistakes as Reagan. The current proposed regulation targets specific population groups for more frequent reviews. The Trump administration proposal focuses on individuals in the latter part of their working careers and individuals with mental health issues and conditions. These are the same populations targeted during the Reagan administration.

As during the Reagan purge, the proposed regulations purport to rely on “research.” SSA research shows that 22 percent of individuals returned to the workforce during the first three years following benefit termination. More significantly, it also shows that 78 percent of individuals did NOT return to the workforce during the first three years following termination from the rolls. Without their benefits, these individuals are left with no means of supporting themselves.

The proposed regulations have too many similarities to the Reagan administration purge that took place from 1981 to 1984. Implementation of CDRs in the 1980s harmed hundreds of thousands of individuals both physically (some even died) and psychologically. This proposed regulation will do the same and violates congressional intent of the 1984 Amendments.

We must comment on the regulations (comments are open until Jan. 31) and let our Representatives and senators know about these proposed changes, which must be stopped. Implementation of these regulations would be a tragedy.

Lowell Arye has more than 35 years of bipartisan experience working at the national and state policy levels including federal and state government, academia and the non-profit sector. He had oversight over the Social Security program in Congress (1982-1988) and in the Executive branch (1988-1992). He most recently served as Deputy Commissioner for the New Jersey Department of Human Services under Gov. Chris Christie.