Social Security Disability Benefits and Drug and Alcohol Use

First off, it should be stated that drug and alcohol use are not a basis for the approval of disability. This is simply a common myth. In actuality, when drug and alcohol use, or abuse, surface in medical records or through the admission of a claimant when they file for disability, the effect on the claim can be negative.

Objectively, for Social Security Disability examiners, the question is whether or not substance use is material or immaterial to the case being decided. To use a broad example, if an individual has a condition and the severity of that condition is independent of substance use, then it is completely immaterial, i.e. not relevant to the case.

To use a more specific example, if an individual is an alcohol consumer and has a liver condition, even one that was caused at least in part by the alcohol consumption, but the condition would not improve even if the alcohol consumption ceased, then the alcohol consumption is immaterial. It would be material to the case if the judgement was made that the person's liver condition would improve with cessation of alcohol consumption.

Here is another way of discussing materiality and how it affects disability claims.

DAA (drug and alcohol use and abuse) materiality can have a negative impact on the claims of those filing for Social Security Disability (SSD) or supplemental security income (SSI). What is DAA materiality? The term refers to an individual's use of drugs or alcohol and the issue of whether or not an individual's state of disability would actually exist minus the use of these drugs. The problem with DAA materiality, of course, is not whether a person has used substances in the past, but whether or not the individual is continuing to use them and whether or not the individual's limitations would abate if the use was stopped.

For this reason, it may not be a good idea to mention past drug or alcohol use in your disability application, as a disability examiner may seize upon this information and use it as an excuse to deny benefits. Even if your medical records indicate only that you drink socially, or that you admit to past substance abuse, DDS (the disability determination services agency, a state agency that decides all Social Security Disability claims) may determine that you are in some way contributing to your impairment and limitations.

For example, if you have a condition like schizophrenia or an affective disorder such as bipolar disorder, Social Security may consider that the severity of your condition has been influenced by substance use.

Even if the disability examiner does not consider the occasional use of alcohol or past substance abuse (even trying marijuana as a teenager) to be a contributing factor to your disability, there is such a culture of claims denial throughout DDS that it is possible that someone (the examiner's supervisor or the doctor or psychologist assigned to the unit) may assign greater-than-due-significance to the mention of substance use.

This may be especially true if you are filing for disability on the basis of a mental impairment. Mental conditions such as depression and bipolar disorder have been linked to alcohol or drug use, and several studies have shown that the abuse of alcohol or drugs can worsen symptoms associated with these types of illnesses.

On average, DDS denies 7 out of 10 disability applications, and more than 8 out of 10 first Social Security Disability appeals. These statistics point to the inevitable conclusion that, often, it doesn't take much to get turned down for disability. Given the fact that claimants are under no legal obligation to report past substance abuse, it may be best to forgo mentioning it altogether if you hope to qualify for disability.

Regardless of whether you are filing for SSD or SSI for a physical or mental impairment, consider carefully before you mention alcohol and drug use on your Social Security Disability application or on your request for reconsideration appeal paperwork (this first appeal is decided within DDS, the same agency that decided the initial application, which is why most first Social Security Disability appeals are unsuccessful).

About the Author: Tim Moore is a former Social Security Disability Examiner in North Carolina, has been interviewed by the NY Times and the LA Times on the disability system, and is an Accredited Disability Representative (ADR) in North Carolina. For assistance on a disability application or Appeal in NC, click here.

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