When a person is obese, he might have difficulty performing certain functions needed on the job. With severe obesity, a person can also develop significant health issues that interfere with his ability to work and support himself. If you cannot work, can you get Social Security disability benefits for obesity?
The answer used to be “no” in most circumstances, but in 2019, the Social Security Administration (SSA) changed its position on this question and changed the way it evaluates applications for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits on the basis of obesity. Before this new ruling, obesity was not a Medically Determinable Impairment (MDI) for purposes of SSDI benefits. The 2019 ruling held obesity can be an MDI, when you can support your application with objective medical evidence, like lab tests and symptoms, from a medical source that the SSA finds acceptable.
Blue Book Listings versus Medical Equivalents
The SSA uses the Blue Book, also called the Listing of Impairments, to evaluate the medical severity of conditions which form the basis of applications for SSDI benefits. Obesity is still not a listed impairment in the Blue Book, but severe obesity can lead to functional impairments by itself or when combined with another impairment to become the medical equivalent of a listed impairment.
Obesity can cause impairments that are listed in the Blue Book, like diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure or co-exist with a severe medical condition the obesity did not cause. Some people with obesity qualify for SSDI benefits, because of their other medical conditions.
How the SSA Defines Obesity
Although the medical community defines obesity as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher, the SSA does not use any specific weight or BMI to establish obesity as a severe impairment for purposes of SSDI benefits. The ruling states that a muscular athlete can have a weight-to-height ratio that leads to a BMI of over 30, even though the person has very low body fat.
The SSA evaluates how the obesity limits the person’s functions and ability to work, including:
- Symptoms that could limit functioning, like pain or fatigue
- Functional limits in the applicant’s ability to perform basic work activities
- Any other physical or mental impairments
The SSA does not separate the obesity from other conditions the applicant might have, such as physical or mental health issues. If the person’s obesity, by itself, or combined with other impairments, causes significant limitations in his physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities, the SSA will consider the obesity as a severe impairment.
The assessing professional will evaluate any of these:
- Exertion: ability to sit, stand, walk, push, pull, carry, or lift
- Non-exertional: stooping, kneeling, climbing, balancing and crouching
- Ability to manipulate objects
- Ability to tolerate extreme heat, humidity, or hazards
- Range of motion of the spine and extremities
If the SSA determines the person’s obesity meets the medical severity test, the applicant will then have to satisfy the non-medical factors to qualify for SSDI benefits.
Non-Medical Requirements to Get SSDI Benefits
In addition to having a severe medical condition that prevents you from doing your job, you will also have to prove that:
- You cannot work any type of job to support yourself, AND
- Your income does not exceed the earnings limit for that year. In 2019, the cap is $1,220 per month ($2,040 if you are statutorily blind). AND
- You accumulated enough work credits before you became disabled, by working long enough at jobs that paid into the Social Security system.
This information is general in nature and you should consult legal counsel regarding you unique circumstances.
Social Security Administration. “SSR 19-2p: Titles II and XVI: Evaluating Cases Involving Obesity.” (accessed August 28, 2019) https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/rulings/di/01/SSR2019-02-di-01.html
Social Security Administration. “Substantial Gainful Activity.” (accessed August 28, 2019) https://www.ssa.gov/oact/cola/sga.html
Social Security Administration. “Benefits Planner: Disability | How You Qualify.” (accessed August 28, 2019) https://www.ssa.gov/planners/disability/qualify.html
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