In 1991, the Social Security Administration drafted a rule that explained that controlling weight was given to medical opinions from treating sources about the nature and severity of claimants’ impairments if they are well-supported by medically acceptable clinical and laboratory diagnostic techniques and are not inconsistent with other substantial evidence in the record. This rule is commonly known as the “treating physician rule.”
The SSA has recently proposed a number of changes to this rule based upon a 2013 study (downloadable PDF). Among the recommendations were to no longer apply controlling weight to doctor opinions addressing the following issues:
- Statements that an individual is or is not disabled, blind, able to work, or able to perform regular or continuing work;
- Statements about whether or not an individual’s impairment(s) meets the duration requirement for disability;
- Statements about whether or not an individual’s impairment(s) meets or equals any listing in the Listing of Impairments;
- Statements about whether or not an individual’s impairment(s) functionally equals the Listings.
The SSA will also not use a diagnosis, medical opinion, or an individual’s statement of symptoms to establish the existence of impairment. A physical or mental impairment would now need to be established by “objective medical evidence.”
It’s easy to understand how discounting a treating source could adversely affect applicants for disability. These physicians have the most interaction with their patients in terms of frequency and duration of involvement. When you contrast a treating physician’s opinion with a doctor chosen by the SSA who most often never even meets or speaks with the claimant, you can see the problem. Putting these two entities on the same footing legally seems misguided at best and purposefully devious at worst.
However, when you add in that the SSA will not use an individual’s statement of symptoms as a basis for finding disability, particularly in the mental-health field, you make proving disability a much more difficult proposition than it already is. Individuals who are applying for disability typically face difficulty seeing doctors on a regular basis due to obvious financial considerations. They often cannot afford the “objective” tests to fully explore the extent of their diagnoses. Moreover, there are no objective tests to diagnose depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, etc. The very nature of these claims requires a thorough examination of the claimant’s expression of disability to diagnose, evaluate and treat. The SSA cannot possibly ignore the claimant’s accounts of their disability and do an adequate job of evaluating these claims, especially the ones based upon mental illness.
The SSA needs to jettison these proposed rule changes, and stick with the controlling weight standard that has been in place for 25 years. Furthermore, they need to allow the judges to evaluate claimant testimony without rigid rules that discount their personal evidence.
To comment on the SSA proposal, follow this link: Regulations.gov – Docket Folder Summary and press the “Comment Now!” button. Comments are due Nov. 8 (next Tuesday, aka Election Day).
Please contact an experienced Social Security Disability lawyer with specific questions about the details of your case.