A proposal tucked into the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) 2020 budget, released March 18, is raising fears that people applying for government disability benefits will soon have their posts on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks scrutinized.
Since at least 2014, the SSA’s Office of Inspector General has used social media as a tool for tracking down cases of suspected fraud among those receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).
Until now, however, the SSA has never as a matter of policy reviewed social media accounts to make disability determinations when people are initially applying for SSDI and SSI. That may soon be changing.
"We are evaluating how social media could be used by disability adjudicators in assessing the consistency and supportability of evidence in a claimant's case file," the agency said in the 2020 budget.
For disability rights advocates, the use of social media in disability determinations is problematic on a number of grounds.
To begin with, pictures, videos and other things posted on social media can be taken entirely out of context, providing a misleading view of a person’s physical abilities or other functions.
In addition, advocates argue, the timing of photos may not always be clear from social media posts, raising the possibility that posts could not reflect a person’s abilities at the time they file their disability benefit applications.
Social media monitoring could also further slow the application process, especially for appeals, which regularly take nearly two years.
“The proposal to allow disability adjudicators to monitor or review social media of disability claimants is an unjustified invasion of privacy unlikely to uncover fraud,” Lisa Ekman, director of government affairs at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, told Reuters.
In fiscal year 2018, the SSA issued about $197 billion in payments to SSDI and SSI recipients, but recovered just $98 million in overpayments from all Social Security programs combined, a small fraction of its spending, according to Reuters. Moreover, not all of that $98 million is necessarily fraud, as some recipients were overpaid simply due to administrative errors.
Click here to watch a video from CBS News about the SSA’s proposal.
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For more than half a century, Social Security disability benefits have served as a lifeline for millions of people with special needs. In fact, Social Security offers two distinctly separate disability benefit programs -- each serving nearly 10 million people -- with different purposes, eligibility requirements, and benefit levels.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is geared toward people who spent a significant amount of time in the workforce, but are unable to work due to a disability.
To be eligible for SSDI, a person must have been employed for at least 10 years and no longer be able to perform in any “substantial gainful activity” in the workforce as a result of a disability that is expected to last for more than one year or result in death. The Social Security Administration (SSA) typically defines "substantial gainful activity" as being able to earn more than $1,220 monthly (for 2019).
Some adults may also be eligible for SSDI based on their parents’ employment history, provided that the applicant’s disabilities manifested prior to the person turning age 22.
Benefit levels for SSDI are determined based, in part, on the person’s work history and prior earnings. For 2019, the average monthly SSDI payment for individuals is $1,234.
The second program, Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), is the federal government’s main support program for low-income people, including children, with disabilities.
SSI follows the same functional definition of a person with disabilities as does SSDI, but unlike with SSDI, there is no work history requirement. As a result, SSI benefits are significantly lower than those for SSDI beneficiaries. In 2019, the maximum monthly SSI amount for an individual is $771, although many states add a supplement. In addition, to qualify for SSI and maintain eligibility, recipients may not have more than $2,000 in resources.
For both SSI and SSDI, the Ticket to Work program allows adult recipients to temporarily attempt to rejoin the workforce without automatically seeing their benefits cut off.
The two programs also diverge in terms of the health coverage that accompanies them. SSDI recipients are automatically eligible for Medicare after two years. This is not the case for SSI recipients, although almost all will qualify for Medicaid due to their low-income status.
For both programs, recipients are typically transferred into Social Security’s Old-Age benefits program at age 66. This eligibility age will rise to 67 for people born after 1960.
Some people may also be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits if they are the survivor of a spouse, child or parent who dies.
For more information on SSI and SSDI, click here to read the SSA’s 2019 pamphlet “Understanding the Benefits” or contact us.