Articles Posted in Uncategorized

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On July 10, 2018, the White House signed an Executive Order that gives agency heads greater discretion over the selection of administrative law judges. The United States federal government employs 2,000 judges, with the largest number serving in the Social Security Administration as the judiciary for benefit claims. This, in effect, overturns the Administrative Procedure Act (1946), which set up a system for choosing judges based on scores in detailed examinations. This places the future selection of administrative law judges more directly in the hands of political appointees, who may not have adequate experience or knowledge on important issues to make effective decisions. In this order, it states that the only requirement for an appointee is to “possess a professional license to practice law and be authorized to practice law”—making any lawyer qualified to serve as an administrative law judge. Before this order, requirements to serve included a vetting process through the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), as well as 7 years of experience as an attorney. The order does, however, add that “each agency shall follow the principle of veteran preference as far as administratively feasible,” which is vague and open to interpretation.

John Palguta, a civil service expert, cautioned of the importance of oversight from the OPM to “assure that departments or agencies do not abuse this authority by violating the merit system principles…” Many people are concerned that this order could lead to what Palguta fears: the appointment of judges based on political ideology, rather than their merit. Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, warned that this system “could lead to abuse and biased decisions.”

For those applying for Social Security disability benefits, this decision could impact you or a loved one. If judges selected lack education about the importance of benefits for those with disabilities and the long and trying process until a decision is made by the court, many people’s cases in the courts could be at risk. Those applying for Social Security benefits deserve to have lawyers who are unbiased and well versed in the issues that affect these people’s lives. This Executive Order may negatively impact many people applying for benefits if the administrative law judges are biased against them.  It will be important to watch the appointment of Administrative Law Judges to the agency over the next months to see its impact on the court’s rulings for those with disabilities.

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In Georgia, there are various programs that help people living in poverty.  These programs include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP), Head Start, and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). SNAP is a program that provides low-income households with food stamps to help pay for the cost of food. In order to be eligible for SNAP in Georgia, you must be a resident of the state and have a current bank balance (savings and checking combined) of under $3,001 if you share your household with a person with a disability or person over age 60. If you do not fit into these categories, your bank balance must be under $2,001. You must also have an annual household income (before taxes) below a certain amount (for example, no more than $32,630 for a family of 4).

Another program supporting low-income families is TANF, which provides temporary assistance to families. This program has four goals, which includes giving families support and job preparation.  In order to be eligible for TANF, you must be a US citizen, national, legal alien, or permanent resident, and also have a low income. For example, a family of three must have an income of less than $784/month to qualify for TANF. The amount of cash benefit this program provides depends on the county you live in and your family’s income.  However, there is a five year lifetime limit on TANF benefits.

Head Start, a federal program, educates and supports infants and children up to five years old in families with incomes under the national poverty level. Head Start programs enhance young children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development and work to prepare them for success in school. There are also some Early Head Start programs which support pregnant women and babies living in poverty. The maximum income eligibility for Head Start depends on your household size. However, there are groups eligible for Head Start programs regardless of income including:

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The American Community Survey (ACS) estimated the overall rate of individuals with 1 or more disabilities in the United States population as 12.8% or approximately 41,000,000 people. The U.S. Census Bureau classifies somebody as having a disability if they respond “yes” to any of six questions which identify individuals with daily physical and mental limitations. The survey asked whether questions such as:  “does this person have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs?” and if due to a physical, mental, or emotional condition, do you have difficulty “doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor’s office or shopping?”

Employment of those with disabilities varied widely based on the type of disability. Those with hearing disabilities are most likely to be employed (51.7%), followed by those with vision disabilities (43.5%), and is lowest for those with independent living (17%) and self-care (15.5%) disabilities. Overall, in 2016, only 36.2% of those with disabilities were employed.  Also, those with disabilities on average made about 2/3 of the median salary of individuals without disabilities, according to the Disability Compendium 2017 Annual Report. There is a $10,000 pay gap between those with and without disabilities in yearly earnings.

Statistically, if you have a disability, it is more likely that you will be living in poverty.   In 2016, among working-age people in the US, 26.6% people lived in poverty.  Of this number, 15.7% were disabled.  This shows a strong relationship between having a disability and living in poverty. Among the population of people with a disability, education is also a factor in whether one lives in poverty.  Individuals with a high school diploma are twenty percent more likely to live in poverty than disabled persons with a college degree.   For this reason, government benefits can be an essential safety net for persons with disabilities.

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For those who successfully apply and qualify for Social Security disability benefits, many people wonder how much they will receive each month in payments. There is not one simple answer to this question, as it depends on which disability benefits you are eligible for, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Also, another factor is how much money you earned and paid into the Social Security system. If you do not have enough work credits to qualify for SSDI, you may be eligible for SSI disability benefits if you are low income.  SSI benefits are $750 per month at the maximum level.  In America, 12 million people with disabilities receive either SSI or SSDI. In 2014, the average annual benefit for a disabled worker in Georgia was $14,028 or $1,169 per month. This was only slightly higher than the federal poverty threshold for a working-age single person of $12,316.

While certainly beneficial, it is difficult in Georgia to live solely off a disability payment. For example, the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Georgia is $908, which would leave on average only $261 for other costs—making subsidized housing one of the only affordable options for most people.  For information on finding affordable subsidized apartments in Georgia, based on your desired zip code and number of rooms, click here. The average utility bill per month is $134.14 in Georgia.  Food costs in Georgia are higher than the national average. Disability recipients may also qualify for SNAP benefits (food stamps) which generally are about $187 a month for a single adult.  Also, public transportation is not nearly as extensive in Atlanta as in other cities, especially for those living in the suburbs or rural areas.  Many cannot afford transportation.

The Social Security Administration also has the ability to decide that you are unable to handle your benefit payments yourself. In this case, you will be assigned to an Social Security Representative Payee to handle your benefits for you, who are required to spend the money on basic living expenses before giving any money to you for other purposes. These payees are often family or friends, but when this is not available, the Social Security uses qualified organizations as payees. Any remaining funds from the payments are required to be put into a saving account for your future use.  It is your responsibility to talk with your payee about how your money is being spent.

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Patients who suffer from rheumatoid arthritis may suffer from an acceleration of their symptoms if they put on an excessive amount of weight or lose too many pounds.

According to new research, obesity and low weight both have an adverse impact on symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. The researchers focused on obesity and its crippling effects on the already very painful symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Interestingly enough, they found that severe weight loss also worsened symptoms.

According to the researchers, very often, doctors may mistakenly attribute worsening of the symptoms to the actual arthritic condition, and not to the patient’s weight. The researchers are calling on doctors to look out for severe weight loss or weight gain when they treat symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis.

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Athletes receive plenty of attention for brain injuries.   However, other professionals  are also very likely to suffer head injuries and may require disability benefits. According to a new study, theater workers and actors are at a high risk of head injuries, due to the risky nature of many of their job activities.

According to the results of the study conducted by researchers at Ohio University, more than two -thirds of surveyed theater workers had suffered at least one head injury on the job. A total of 258 workers were surveyed as part of the study. More than three-quarters of the theater workers said that they had suffered more than three head injuries on the job, and 40% admitted to having suffered more than five head injuries. Many of the injuries were moderately serious, and resulted in concussion-related symptoms, like dizziness.

However, while head injuries among professional athletes are taken very seriously, the same doesn’t happen in the case of theater workers. Approximately 50% of the workers admitted that they had never reported their injuries to anyone.  Theater workers don’t benefit from medical specialists on standby, as sports athletes do, and are, therefore, less likely to seek medical treatment when they are injured.

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A simple test involving a keyboard may allow quick detection of Parkinson’s disease, thereby helping patients slow down progression of the disease.

Early detection of Parkinson’s disease is crucial in helping limit the deterioration of symptoms. Symptoms of Parkinson’s disease can worsen in intensity, and over a period of time, the person may find himself unable to perform routine activities without great difficulty. Diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease however, is a challenge. A lot of precious time may be lost between the appearance of the earliest symptoms of the disease, and an accurate diagnosis of the condition. The current standard for detection of the condition is the Unified Parkinson’s Disease Rating Scale Part 3 III. However, the test can only be administered by a trained specialist and at a diagnostic clinic.

Research into Parkinson’s disease therefore, has focused on early detection of the condition. Digital technologies have proved vital to the development of detection techniques. Researchers have recently found that a simple keyboard method can be used to detect the earliest symptoms of the condition.

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Last Thursday, the Trump Administration invited states to add a work requirement to Medicaid eligibility.  States and the federal government jointly fund Medicaid, but states are responsible for running it. The federal government cannot impose work requirements without Congressional approval.  However, states can impose a work requirement by requesting a waiver from the regulations for new programs that carry out the underlying mission of Medicaid.  States do this by applying for a waiver and having it approved by the President.  Hence, it is news when the President of the United States invites states to do this.

Presumably, the work requirement will exempt children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities.  There is hope that it will also exempt full-time students and family care-givers.  Assuming all of these groups that currently receive Medicaid would be exempt under the new work requirement proposal that only leaves a small group that would be affected by it.

According to research by the Kaiser Family Foundation, only 1 in 10 people who receive Medicaid would be subjected to the work requirement.  Kaiser research further shows that in the non-exempt populations, more than 50% of the adult Medicaid recipients who would not be covered by the exemption are already working. Thus, a relatively small portion of the individuals who receive Medicaid would be affected.

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This week the A&E channel  highlights Atlanta in a series of Intervention episodes focused on the “Heroin Triangle.”  Intervention documents individuals addicted to drugs and alcohol.  “The Heroin Triangle” consists of areas just outside of Atlanta, mainly in Cobb County.  Cobb County officials report a growing opioid and heroin epidemic.  Examples of opioids are morphine, hydromorphone, methadone, fentanyl, hydrocodone, codeine, tramadol and burprenorphine.  Heroin is an opioid drug made from morphine.  Research indicates that 80% of Americans using heroin first misused prescription opioids. 

The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports over 30,000 deaths last year from opioid overdose.  There were 20,000 overdose deaths from heroin and illicit opioids.  Drug overdose deaths in 2016 totaled approximately 64,000 people, making it the leading cause of death of individuals under 60 – exceeding car accidents.  Opioid death rates are highest for white males.

What is the cause of this opioid epidemic?  The New England Journal of Medicine (“TNEJM”) reports that the “widespread use of opioid analgesics has resulted in a national epidemic of opioid overdose deaths and addictions.”  Opioid analgesics are the most commonly prescribed class of medications.  Thirty percent of adults and forty percent of older adults suffer from chronic pain.  However, research suggests that opioids soon become the problem.  As TNEJM explains:  For a patient in chronic pain,  even mild levels of pain can trigger the learned associations between pain and drug relief, which are manifested as an urge for relief.  Such a conditioned urge for relief from even mild pain can lead to the early inappropriate use of an opioid outside of prescribed scheduling.  Given the current overdose and addiction epidemic, doctors and medical associations are starting to question the practice of prescribing opioids for chronic pain.    The Center for Disease Control reports that over 2 million Americans are estimated to be dependent on opioids and an additional 95 million are dependent on prescription painkillers.

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Last night Congress agreed to fund the government through December 22, 2017 and just hours ago the President signed that bill.  One of Congress’ constitutional obligations is to approve government funding.  The federal government’s fiscal year runs through October 1st to September 30th.   Because Congress cannot agree on spending priorities, particular the defense department, immigration and healthcare, annual funding has been delayed.  With the approaching holidays and more work to be done, another possible shutdown, days before Christmas, is a possibility.  According to Reuters, “the White House and lawmakers say the bill will give them more time to negotiate several end-of-year agenda items, including the budget, a children’s health program and hurricane aid.”   

For those of you who rely on SSDI or SSI monthly disability benefits, these will not be affected by a government shutdown.  However, for those of you who have pending claims before the Social Security Administration, there may be a slowdown in services.  It is hard to imagine that it could be any slower, but apparently that is possible.  If the shutdown lasts between 1-5 days, essential SSA employees will continue to work.  Ninety-seven percent of hearing office employees will report for work.  However, if the shutdown lasts for more than five days, SSA will “re-evaluate its contingency plan.”  We do expect that scheduled hearings will continue.  However, a shutdown that lasts beyond five days will furlough more employees and create more backlog in workloads.

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