By Emmy Wiest
Elm Staff Writer
History threatens to repeat itself as the Trump administration reveals its 2021 fiscal budget, complete with plans for widespread cuts in Social Security benefits for adults and children with disabilities.
The administration presented their plan — which introduces 2.6 million additional eligibility reviews at a cost of $1.8 billion and adds an adjustment in policy for a range of conditions from cancer to bipolar disorder that will cut the number of disabled individuals covered by thousands — back in November 2019.
During an open comment period from November 2019 to January 2020, over 42,000 official comments were filed in an attempt to convince the administration to withdraw the plan. The concern and outrage from the American public was apparently unconvincing, since the half-baked and widely unsupported plan is being pushed forward in what looks like a desperate attempt to cut SSA spending before the 2020 election.
The process to qualify for disability benefits is already lengthy and difficult — over 60% of applicants are initially denied, as is reported by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Once accepted, beneficiaries are categorized by how often a review of their benefits is required by the government — said categories currently include Medical Improvement Expected (every six to 18 months), Medical Improvement Possible (every three years), and Medical Improvement Not Expected (every five to seven years). The new plan adds a fourth category, Medical Improvement Likely, to allow for more reviews and cuts of benefits to be conducted.
The targeted subgroups include adults with disabilities nearing retirement, impoverished children with disabilities between the ages of six and 12, and adults and children with conditions like cancer and serious behavioral mental disorders like bipolar disorder.
The SSA has provided no medical or scientific data to justify why these varied conditions are anticipated to improve more quickly than others. Data has not even been provided to show that beneficiaries with these conditions stay on disability for too long to begin with, which is the only logical reason to spend time and money increasing the frequency of reviews. It seems unlikely that cutting a cancer patient’s benefits short is going to be the motivation they need to get back into the work force.
In a logic-defying move that should not be surprising at this point, the SSA is not relying on medical data to determine who falls into this fourth category, but instead plans to use a “predictive model.” They fail to describe said model in any capacity, leaving what should be obvious questions in the air — what factors will the model account for in determining potential for recovery, in the absence of medical data? Will individual factors that can greatly alter the potential for and timeline of recovery be considered, like preexisting conditions, access to a regular healthcare provider, adequate support from social networks, access to a reasonably healthy diet and exercise relative to their abilities?
If this situation sounds familiar, it might be because President Reagan tried the same thing — it ended in utter disaster for everyone involved.
From 1981 to 1984, the Social Security Administration altered the review process for people receiving disability benefits, resulting in the removal of support for nearly 500,000 beneficiaries. Most of them were individuals with mental illnesses. Democrats and Republicans alike overwhelmingly called for the end of this initiative following the horror stories of disabled people with serious conditions and in desperate need of their benefits to get by were revealed through the media.
The New York Times recently published an article by a lawyer and activist who fought against the 1980s cuts, who cites the “serious harm to thousands unjustly removed as beneficiaries” caused by Reagan’s plan. It was dissolved by a unanimous vote in the Senate and House; 99-0 and 402-0, respectively. Ultimately, the plan went down as one of Reagan’s biggest legislative failures.
Apparently, the Trump Administration missed that history lesson. Or, maybe, this is a desperate move to satisfy one of the central promises Trump made in his 2016 campaign — to cut Social Security spending. He has failed to fulfill that promise as of yet, and with the 2020 elections looming, this may be a last-ditch effort to satisfy supporters. But a rushed job rarely yields satisfactory results, even for the person leading the charge.
Trump may just come to realize that his uncalculated risk will not pay off against the 3.3 million disability beneficiaries in swing states that he just trampled over.