To qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, a person must be unable to engage in substantial gainful activity (SGA) as a result of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that can be expected to last at least one year or result in death. SGA is measured in terms of earnings. In 2019, SGA for nonblind individuals is defined as an activity resulting in monthly earnings of at least $1,220 ($2,040 for blind individuals).
After 24 months, SSDI beneficiaries are also eligible for Medicare—including Part A (Hospital Insurance), Part B (Supplemental Medical Insurance), Part C (Medicare Advantage), and Part D (Prescription Drugs). This waiting period creates significant hardships for many beneficiaries who may not receive needed medical care or may draw down their life savings to pay for care.
The program currently excludes some people in need. Social Security does not provide temporary disability insurance, which would partially compensate for lost wages resulting from pregnancy and temporary nonoccupational disabilities. Nor does it provide benefits for permanent impairments that limit but do not preclude work.
A 21st-century disability policy could place greater emphasis on people’s ability to work. Rather than forcing people who need assistance to prove that they are permanently and totally disabled, federal disability programs could be expanded to provide more limited but reliable financial support to individuals who have some capacity to work. It could also provide time-limited assistance to people at risk of having a short-term disability turn into a long-term one.
ELIGIBILITY FOR SOCIAL SECURITY DISABILITY INSURANCE: Policy
Expanding disability insurance eligibility
The Social Security Administration should explore options for expanding federal disability benefits to include short-term and partial disability benefits, including assessments of cost.
Policymakers should eliminate the existing 24-month Medicare waiting period for Social Security Disability Insurance beneficiaries.