Is Morbid Obesity Considered A Disability?

Social Security used to have a specific medical listing that covered morbid obesity, however in recent years this listing has been dropped. Now morbid obesity has to be evaluated in conjunction with other impairments that may be exacerbated by obesity such as asthma, cardiovascular conditions, arthritis or by the increased functional limitations caused by an individual's obesity.

Initially, Social Security had a chart that addressed specific weights and heights that established morbid obesity; however since the demise of the medical listing it depends upon treating physicians or consultative physicians to establish the fact that an individual has morbid obesity.

Basically, Social Security considers morbid obesity to be a severe impairment, either alone or in conjunction with other medical problems that significantly limit an individual's ability to perform significant work activity or activities of daily living (i.e. personal grooming, walking, driving, etc.).

How obesity was previously evaluated

Since the rule change in October, 1999, Social Security has evaluated obesity under other listings. For example, if an individual has morbid obesity and arthritis, the individual will most likely be evaluated under the musculoskeletal listings. Likewise, if an individual has heart or breathing problems, obesity may be evaluated under a cardiovascular or asthma listing. However, if an individual does not meet any of these listings in the social security impairment listing manual, they may still be approved via a medical vocational allowance.

What is a medical vocational allowance? Medical vocational allowances are based upon an individual's age, educational background, past work, medical and/or mental conditions, and residual functional capacity (what an individual is able to do in spite of their medical and/or mental impairments).

So the simple answer to this question is, yes, morbid obesity is considered to be a disabling medical condition just like any other severe medical or mental condition. And just like other impairments, it is evaluated under the five step sequential Social Security Disability evaluation process. Remember, first and foremost, eligibility for Social Security Disability benefits depends upon functional ability rather than being diagnosed with a specific medical and/or mental condition.

As an examiner, I found that the obesity listing was frequently derided (I've blogged about this: never assume that the people working on your case are empathetic or completely impartial. The fact of the matter is that they are not. If they were entirely impartial, you would not see huge differences in outcomes between the various levels of the system and between various states in the country).

Was the decision to delete the obesity listing right or wrong? Personally, I think it was a mistake and here's why: when an individual's body weight reaches a certain threshold of obesity, impairments are typically bound to follow in the various body systems and, over time, become progressively worse (sometimes becoming life-threatening), whether those impairments are currently listing-level or not.

Also, consider this scenario: An individual is severely obese and has respiratory, musculoskeletal (typically, arthritic degeneration), and cardivascular deficits (such as congestive heart failure). Even if this individual's respiratory, joint, and heart problems are not listing level, in and of themselves (i.e., none of these individual conditions meet the disability approval criteria set forth in the impairment listing manual), they may still, in combination with the functional limiations that would normally be present in a severely obese individual, make it impossible for the individual to: A. perform the duties of their past work and B. performs the duties of any other suitable type of work, as determined by age, skills, and education.

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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