Tag Archives: SSDI

January 5, 2017

Why Public-Private Collaboration Is Necessary to Prevent Work Disability

My goal now is to raise awareness about the need for concerted governmental, philanthropic, and private sector action to find better ways to support the millions of workers who lose their livelihoods each year due to injury or illness.  In many cases, this outcome could have been prevented.  And in the New World under President Trump, it will probably be more important than ever to make sure that people get the help they need to KEEP earning a living and STAY in the workforce.

You may be wondering … why work disability is a problem?  Let’s start with the basics. As a practical matter, we already know that lack of work is bad for people and for communities.  Just think about the many millions of dollars the government spends to create jobs and reduce unemployment!  But now, formal research has started confirming how harmful worklessness really is for adults — documenting the consequences for their physical and mental health as well as for their marital, family, social and economic well-being.

Since that’s so obvious…. let’s agree that preserving people’s ability to function and work should be a fundamental purpose of health care services.  Successfully doing so should be seen as an especially valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.  And the failure to do so should be called a poor outcome.

Today’s reality is … that whether or not a person with an newly-acquired medical condition is able to function and work afterwards is not even counted as a health outcome!  And there are gaps in our social fabric that are actually creating job loss and work disability.

Here’s one big example of a gap: … None of the three professionals typically responding to workers who are dealing with life disruption due to injury or illness feel any responsibility for actively supporting the workers to keep their jobs or find new ones if necessary. That includes health care professionals, employers, and benefits administrators.  Occasionally, some of these professionals actually advise against work — not realizing the consequences, of course.  The workers are left to fend for themselves;  some lack the confidence or skills to do so successfully.  We need better public policy, stronger governmental efforts, and more support from the private sector in order to prevent this needless work disability.

Do you realize… that roughly half of the people now receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and other prolonged disability benefits started out with very common health problems like back pain, depression, and anxiety?  And do you realize that the vast majority of people in the country who develop those same conditions don’t even take any time off work or are able to return after just a short absence?   So the people who end up on SSDI are members of a subgroup that has had unexpectedly poor outcomes — including job loss.

You might ask …why does this sub-group have such poor outcomes of conditions that normally don’t cause much work disability at all?  It’s logical to assume that these people had the most severe cases of back pain or depression and so on, but in most cases there’s actually no objective data to support that idea.  For every person now on long-term disability there are others who started out with the exact same condition, but are still working.  From the strictly medical point of view, they looked identical at the beginning.  What is different is the way the illness episode unfolded in the two groups:  what happened; how others talked to them and treated them; the decisions they made about the best way to manage this life challenge; the effectiveness of the medical treatment they received; the other kinds of support they got and the opportunities that were or weren’t available.

My personal hope is that … more employed people who are dealing with new injuries or illnesses are going to get what they need at the right time to avoid needless impairment work absence, job loss, withdrawal from the work force, and long-term reliance on disability benefits — which really means a life of poverty.  That would be good for them, for the tax payers, and for our society as a whole.

Now that these issues are in the spotlight …. It is time for policy makers, employers, healthcare providers, health and disability insurers, other service providers, and affected individuals to start talking together about solutions — and then do their part to make those things happen.

For the last three years, Mathematica‘s policy researchers Yoni Ben Shalom, David Stapleton, and I have been collaborating in the SAW/RTW Collaborative sponsored by the Office of Disability Employment Policy in the US Department of Labor.  On September 13, 2016, Mathematica held a forum and webinar during which several speakers presented some actionable policy options that can improve outcomes and prevent needless work disability.

If you want to go deeper … Read my short Work Disability Prevention Manifesto by downloading it from the “Current favorites I’m Sharing” section on my blog homepage.  Or you can look at / listen to the recording of the SAW/RTW Collaborative’s September 13 forum/webinar..  Some of the ideas presented by the policy researchers came from surprising angles — and were quite creative / innovative!


October 31, 2016

Social Security Administration seeks input from YOU

I hope you will read — and respond — to this Request for Information issued by the U.S. Social Security Administration.  SSA is looking for input in order to decide whether to undertake a demonstration project (at the community level) for early intervention in musculoskeletal (MSK) conditions – in the first few weeks (<12) after onset of work disruption.

I’m sure SSA will really pay attention to thoughtful input they get from “front line” professionals and researchers / practitioners with expertise in this field — and from patients who have personal experience with the gaps and holes in our systems today that push them towards disability and job loss.

SSA will ONLY proceed with this demonstration project idea if they think it WILL decrease job loss, workforce withdrawal, and eventual applications for SSDI — by reducing needless impairment and disability while preserving livelihoods among the workers.   At this stage, SSA is asking basic questions about the level of evidence supporting the efficacy of early intervention, what the interventions should consist of, as well as the wisdom, practicalities, and potential efficacy of such an effort.

The deadline for responses is November 18.   There is a real possibility this demonstration will actually happen.  The President’s proposed 2017 budget has $200 million allocated for demonstration projects by SSA.    Whether or not that money will ever actually be appropriated will depend on many factors, including which candidate is elected President and the composition of the Congress.

While I was scanning the RFI to find the response date, I was stunned and delighted to see my name listed in one of the 3 references cited at the end!  SSA listed the concept proposal for a Community-Focused Health & Work Service that Tom Wickizer, Kim Burton and I contributed to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  All of the proposals, including ours, are available here: SSDI Solutions: Ideas to Strengthen the Social Security Disability Insurance Program .Maybe our work has actually made some difference – at the very least, SSA is now interested enough to seriously explore our ideas!

Now it’s YOUR turn to make a difference — by reading and responding to SSA’s RFI.


September 9, 2016

Pithy 4-min Video & 1-page Manifesto for you to use

Mathematica just released a 4-minute video of me pointing out why the work disability prevention model is important — in plain language.  The video was made at the request of the US Department of Labor’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP).  The main messages in the video are:

  1. MILLIONS of Americans lose their jobs every year due to injury and illness;
  2. Worklessness and job loss have been shown to harm physical and mental health as well as personal, family, social, and economic well-being;
  3. Worklessness and job loss should therefore be considered poor healthcare outcomes;
  4. Unexpectedly poor outcomes can often be prevented and there is good research evidence about how to do that;
  5. Changes need to be made so that vulnerable people get what they need at the time when they need it — and as a result are able to have the best possible life outcome, stay in the workforce, and keep earning their own living.

In addition, the video also explains WHY and HOW some people have unexpectedly poor outcomes of conditions that do not normally cause significant work disruption and job loss.  Unless you’re in my line of work, it is hard to understand why things turn out badly in some cases and not in others — especially if they looked exactly the same at the beginning.

The video is loosely based on a one-page Work Disability Prevention Manifesto I wrote.  I put a draft of it on this blog last spring and got many useful comments.  After many revision cycles, it is now as succinct and compelling as I know how to make it.  ODEP had no hand in the Manifesto; it’s my independent work.

I’m glad I can now share these two items with you because the WORLD needs to know more about these issues—and most PEOPLE in the world have a very short attention span and no interest in the topic to begin with.   I hope you will pass this stuff along to the people whose thinking you want to change or whose buy in you need. Then maybe THEY will pass it along to others as well.  Social norms ONLY SHIFT when people share powerful mind-opening ideas with one another.

Lastly, let’s all stop speaking ABOUT these problems.  It is time for us all to start speaking FOR action and FOR changes.

WORK DISABILITY PREVENTION MANIFESTO
©Jennifer Christian, MD, MPH August 2016

Preventable job loss demands our attention

  • Millions of American workers lose their jobs each year due to injury, illness or a change in a chronic condition.
  • Preserving people’s ability to function and participate fully in everyday human affairs, including work, is a valuable health care outcome, second only to preserving life, limb, and essential bodily functions.
  • A new medical problem that simultaneously threatens one’s ability to earn a living creates a life crisis that must be addressed rapidly and wisely. Most people are unprepared for this double-headed predicament. It can overwhelm their coping abilities.
  • When medical conditions occur or worsen, especially common ones, most people are able to stay at or return to work without difficulty. However, many prolonged work disability cases covered by private- and public-sector benefits programs began as very common health problems (for example, musculoskeletal pain, depression, and anxiety) but had unexpectedly poor outcomes including job loss.
  • Loss of livelihood due to medical problems is a poor health outcome. Worklessness is harmful to people’s health, as well as to their family, social, and economic well-being.

Why do such poor outcomes occur?

  • Medical conditions by themselves rarely require prolonged work absence, but it can look that way. Both treatment and time off work are sometimes considered benefits to be maximized, rather than tools to be used judiciously.
  • Professionals typically involved in these situations (health care providers, employers, and benefits administrators) do not feel responsible for avoiding job loss.
  • Unexpectedly poor outcomes are frequently due to a mix of medical and nonmedical factors. Diagnosed conditions are inappropriately treated; others (especially psychiatric conditions) are unacknowledged and untreated. The employer, medical office, and insurance company (if there is one) operate in isolation, with little incentive to collaborate.
  • Without the support of a team focused on helping them get their lives back on track, people can get lost in the health care and benefits systems. With every passing day away from work, the odds worsen that they will ever return. After a while, they start to redefine themselves as too sick or disabled to work.
  • When people lose their jobs and do not find new ones, they barely get by on disability benefits and are vulnerable to other detrimental effects.

How can we fix this problem?

  • Good scientific evidence exists about how unexpectedly poor outcomes are created, how to avoid them, and how health care and other services can protect jobs.
  • Health-related work disruption should be viewed as a life emergency. Productive activity should be a part of treatment regimens.
  • When work disruption begins, it can be both effective and cost-beneficial to have a coordinator help the individual, treating physician, and employer communicate and focus everyone’s attention on maximizing recovery, restoring function, accommodating irreversible losses, and making plans for how the individual can keep working, return to work, or quickly find a more appropriate job.
  • We must urgently establish accountability for work disability and job loss in our workforce, health care, and disability benefits systems and build nationwide capacity to consistently deliver services—just in time, when needed—that help people stay at work or return to work.

November 18, 2015

Our proposal for “upstream” services to reduce “downstream” inflow onto SSDI

Kim Burton, Tom Wickizer, and I have a good idea for how to reduce the inflow onto Social Security Disability Insurance.  Ours was among only twelve proposals selected for further development during a “competition of ideas” held by the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

Once selected, we fleshed out the proposal in a written report.  It recommends the development, testing, refinement and launch of a nationwide Health & Work Service (HWS) that would assist workers who have recently developed potentially disabling conditions to maximize their functional recovery, stay at or return to work — and either KEEP their jobs or FIND new ones!  Our report describes why the service is needed and how it would work.  It includes many literature citations that provide a solid foundation for our proposal as a whole as well as specific design features of the HWS.

SSDI Solutions Initiative

The full reports have just been released to the public.   You can find all 12 of them here:   http://ssdisolutions.org/selected-papers.

And you can find ours here:  http://ssdisolutions.org/sites/default/files/christianwickizerburton.pdf  There is a main report and 3 (juicy) appendices.  One oddity is that the editors removed all biographical or organizational info about the 3 authors.  We could be 3 dogcatchers or 3 priests or 3 unemployed hula dancers for all the readers will ever know.  Here’s info about me and my co-authors:  Jennifer Christian, Thomas Wickizer and Kim Burton.

I verbally presented our idea in just 6 MINUTES at the SSDI Solutions conference on August 4, 2015.   Here’s a video of the entire event.  (My presentation starts about minute 36).

Do you happen to know any professionals who would LOVE to be part of a national effort to help people mitigate the impact of illness and injury on their lives and futures — and prevent needless work disability?  I do!!!  Among them are many of my physician and psychology colleagues in the American College of Occupational & Environmental Medicine, the many professional members in a wide variety of disciplines on the Work Fitness & Disability Roundtable — and most especially the 100 Founding and Charter members of the nascent but still unfunded Praxis Partners Consortium.

Hey, I have an idea!  If you like the idea of a HWS service, why not get in touch with the people at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and tell them so!   Here’s a link to their “contact us” page:  http://ssdisolutions.org/contact/ssdi


October 10, 2015

Some specifics: Our proposal for a Health & Work Service

In our August 2015 proposal to the SSDI Solutions Initiative sponsored by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget on Capitol Hill, we recommended that a community-focused Health & Work Service (HWS) be established.  The services to be provided by the HWS are generally not available in our country today, particularly to lower-wage workers and those who work for small firms.This service would be dedicated to responding rapidly to new episodes of health-related work absence among working people in order to help them:

— Minimize life disruption and get things back to normal as quickly as it is medically safe to do so
— Focus attention on treatments and services to restore ability to function at home and at work
— Understand and navigate through the healthcare and benefits programs and systems
— Avoid being abandoned; learn how to be a squeaky wheel and get their needs met
— Communicate with all parties to expedite both medical care and the return to work process, including resolving non-medical obstacles to recovery and return to work, making temporary adjustments or arranging reasonable accommodation when appropriate.
— Keep their jobs or promptly find new ones if that is necessary.

(The material below summarizes our written proposal.  If you’re interested in the scientific research that underlies these ideas, the 30+ pages and 3 appendices of our “real deal” formal report support all key assertions with literature citations and an extensive bibliography.  Along with the 12 other proposals commissioned by the SSDI Solutions Initiative group, it is scheduled to be published electronically in late October, and in print in January 2016.)

The first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period during which the likelihood of a good long-term outcome is being influenced, either favorably or unfavorably, by some simple things that either do or do not happen during that interval. It is the optimal window of opportunity to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns as well as coordinating the medical, functional restoration, and occupational aspects of the situation in a coordinated fashion.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months, although some data shows it ending by 6 months.  Many studies have show that a modest set of simple services—that embody an immediate, systematic, pro-active, integrated, and multidimensional approach—can mitigate the potentially destructive impact of common injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on quality of life among the working population.

In the USA today, a large and growing fraction of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards are being made to people deemed totally unable to work due to conditions that are among the most common health problems in America and the world, but which only rarely cause permanent withdrawal from the workforce. Low back pain and other chronic musculoskeletal conditions (MSK), and common mood disorders (CMD) —particularly depression and anxiety—are the most prominent conditions in this category.

Near-immediate assistance from a community-focused Health & Work Service will allow people with these kinds of common conditions to avoid the kind of adverse secondary consequences they too often experience today. Those consequences are usually not obvious until months or years later, after unfortunate things have happened. The unlucky ones have received sub-optimal health care, been left with under-treated or iatrogenic impairment,  become dependent on opioids, found themselves socially isolated, lost their jobs, withdrawn from the workforce, lost economic independence, and ended up on long-term disability benefits programs or SSDI in order to survive. Anticipatory programs that ensure the right things happen from the start and include early identification of those needing extra support are the simplest and most effective way to prevent later adverse secondary consequences of these conditions.

As we envision it, the HWS will build strong collaborative relationships with referral sources in local communities: treating physicians, employers, and benefits payers. Service delivery in individual cases can be largely telephonic and internet-based because these technologies are proving to be as or more effective than face-to-face care delivery. The quadruple goal is to maximize service quality, optimize outcomes, minimize logistical challenges, and control costs. The HWS service will:

(a) — get its referrals from affected individuals, local treating physicians, employers, benefits payers and others when work absence has lasted or is expected to last more than four weeks;

(b) — champion the stay-at-work and return-to-work (SAW/RTW) process from the time of referral through the end of the immediate response period (usually 12 weeks post onset);

(c) —  quickly evaluate the individual’s situation, screen for known risks for poor outcomes, help them make a SAW/RTW plan and support them in carrying it out;

(d) —  facilitate communications among all involved parties as needed to get everyone on the same page and driving towards the best possible outcome.;

(e) — expedite and coordinate external medical, rehabilitative and other kinds of helping services, including referrals for specialized services as needed to address remediable obstacles in a variety of life domains;

(f) — take a problem-solving approach in collaboration with affected individuals, their treating physicians, employers, and payers.

Of course, developing the HWS will first require a commitment to funding, either by the government or by a foundation that is committed to system change. Once that has been obtained, the initiative will unfold in a series of steps including design, prototyping, development, and field-testing in different geographies, followed by a large randomized controlled trial.  After that, the HWS can gradually roll out across large geographic areas.

What does this mean for you?   First, if you like the idea of working people getting the kind of support they need and deserve — and when it is most likely to make a difference,  please support this idea in whatever way you can.  Why not call or email your Congressman?  Second, if you are a professional with the expertise and passion required to help people get “right back on the horse” — and are now stymied and frustrated by the current system’s inadequacies / dysfunctions, you have probably realized that the HWS service might create a lot of fulfilling and satisfying jobs for specialists like you.  If so…. that’s another reason to call or email your Congressman!


October 9, 2015

A Health & Work Service could prevent or reduce impairment/disability

 

There is definitely an opportunity to make a positive difference BIG ENOUGH to make the expense and effort of developing, launching and delivering a nationwide community-focused Health & Work Service (HWS) worth it — in my opinion.   (Our proposal for establishing the HWS was among 12 ideas selected for development as part of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget‘s SSDI Solutions Initiative on Capitol Hill.)  There are two main reasons why this opportunity exists.

First reason:  Years of research have shown that some of the unfortunate secondary consequences of illness and injury — certain kinds of impairment and work disability — CAN sometimes be prevented or reduced.  This is particularly true in people with the most common chronic musculoskeletal conditions (MSK) especially low back pain, and the most common mental disorders (CMD) like depression and anxiety.  And research has also shown that intervening early in the unfolding of an injury or illness episode can have a very favorable impact on the long-term outcome.

Second reason:  Millions of workers in America fall through the cracks in our society because they have no access to services or expertise that might protect them against job loss after injury or illness, or they experience service failures.  Many of them work for employers that do not offer health or disability insurance, or that are excluded from the requirement to buy workers’ compensation insurance.  Many work for small companies that are exempted from the Family Medical Leave Act which protects jobs for 12 weeks when employees have health problems, or the Americans with Disabilities Act which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.  In addition, there are many people who are the victims of neglect or poor decision-making by those with authority over some aspect of their situation.  Sub-par employees headed for termination exist among the administrative staff, professionals, supervisors, and managers in every organization, including every medical care facility, workplace, and benefits claims administration organization.  Before leaving, each of these sub-par employees has probably had an impact on hundreds of vulnerable workers.

Therefore, it is not correct to assume that all of the people who are now on SSDI due to these common health problems had the worst (most severe) form of their particular MSK or CMD from a biological/pathological perspective, and that nothing could have prevented their entry into SSDI.  While undoubtedly true in many cases, it is also likely that a sizable number of them lost their footing in the world of work and ended up on SSDI because of events that occurred in response to their health condition—not the condition itself. Their lives fell apart due to a cascade of adverse secondary consequences of the initial medical problem, and after a time SSDI became the best option for survival.

Remediable or Avoidable Reasons for Poor Outcomes

At the moment when the common health problems of this subgroup of SSDI recipients first started, these people would often have looked very similar to other patients with the same diagnosis and objective clinical findings—but who then experienced good recoveries.  This is because the factors that predict poor outcomes (serious impairment and prolonged work disability) as a consequence of MSK, especially low back pain, are not tightly related to either the specific diagnosis or the extent of the pathology. Although less research has been done on factors that predict poor outcomes in CMD, and diagnosis does play a more significant role, there are other important non-medical factors.

Some of the factors that predict poor outcomes are immutable (such as age, past medical history, work history, and geographic location). But other factors are potentially remediable such as elapsed time out of work, uncertainty and distrust due to lack of communication or information, uncoordinated or inappropriate medical care and advice, low expectations of recovery, excessive vigilance, catastrophic thinking, false beliefs, fear of movement, self-limitation, perceived injustice, and lack of employer support. Today, those who handle these situations do not typically look for any of these remediable problems and address them.  And none of the professionals involved has been trained to feel responsible for driving the situation forwards towards a good outcome .

The standard medical care process is simply inadequate to help people in these situations avoid poor life outcomes. What is needed is coordinated activity during a fleeting opportunity to address and resolve a set of pivotal issues (both medical and non-medical) around the time the condition starts interfering with work—issues that will set the situation off onto the right or wrong path.

The first few days and weeks after onset are an especially critical period during which the likelihood of a good long-term outcome is being influenced, either favorably or unfavorably, by some simple things that either do or do not happen during that interval. It is the optimal window of opportunity to improve outcomes by simultaneously attending to the worker’s basic needs and concerns as well as coordinating the medical, functional restoration, and occupational aspects of the situation in a coordinated fashion.

The best opportunity for basic intervention appears to last about 12 weeks or three months, although some data shows it ending by 6 months.  Many studies have show that a modest set of simple services—that embody an immediate, systematic, pro-active, integrated, and multidimensional approach—can mitigate the potentially destructive impact of common injuries, illnesses, and chronic conditions on quality of life among the working population.

In summary, the way a health-related episode that disrupts work unfolds over time in all dimensions—biological, psychological, social, and economic—can have a big impact on the outcome. Events that occur can either mitigate or aggravate existing risk factors in the situation, leading to better or worse outcomes. There are usually many opportunities to actively influence the course of events immediately after onset of a health problem (and many fewer opportunities later on), but today there are few resources devoted to finding and exercising these opportunities. Most of the current attempts to steer situations to a better outcome are made long after the best opportunities have passed by.

If you’d like the references for the research mentioned above, get a copy of our full report when it is published by the CFRB later this month (electronically) or in January (in print).

Bottom line:   If you agree that the USA needs a community-focused Health & Work Service, contact your Congressional representative, tell them you like our proposal and recommend that it be included in the 2016 SSDI reform legislation package.  Or even better yet, take a grass-roots approach.  Team up with other like-minded people to see if a local charity or foundation will fund your efforts start a HWS in your own community!