No Surprise: Disability Beneficiaries Experience High Death Rates

April 4, 2013 at 4:17 pm

We’ve written a lot about the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which pays modest benefits (averaging $1,100 a month) to people who have worked substantially in the past but can’t anymore because of a severe and long-lasting medical impairment.  But, in the face of continuing questions about the program, here’s something else to keep in mind:

People who collect DI are at least three times as likely to die as other people their age (see chart).

For some DI recipients, the health diagnoses are bleak:  cancer, emphysema, congestive heart failure or kidney failure.  Many other recipients’ primary diagnoses, including mental disorders and impairments that affect their bones, muscles, and joints, aren’t usually fatal by themselves — though often recipients suffer from multiple conditions that can complicate their health.

Moreover, DI beneficiaries typically have low income, limited education, and a history of poor access to the health care system.

Here’s another way to look at their mortality:  the Social Security actuaries estimate that about one-fifth of men who get DI, and nearly one-sixth of women, die within five years after they start collecting benefits.

(And an unknown, but significant, number die during the five-month waiting period, when DI benefits are unavailable and claimants must rely on sick leave, savings, help from family members, or — for the truly destitute — needs-tested Supplemental Security Income benefits.  The very sickest applicants may get fast-track consideration under the compassionate allowances program, but even that process doesn’t waive the five-month wait.)

Many new beneficiaries have costly health care needs.  DI recipients can obtain Medicare 24 months after they qualify for cash benefits, regardless of their age.  A pilot study that offered selected beneficiaries medical coverage during that normal two-year wait found that the average participant cost $30,000, and 9 percent bumped against the pilot’s $100,000 ceiling.

DI’s critics should remember that it chiefly helps older workers with severe impairments, high health care costs, limited education and skills — and high mortality.  In short, it works as policymakers intended.

Print Friendly

More About Kathy Ruffing

Kathy Ruffing

Kathy Ruffing is a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, specializing in federal budget issues.

Full bio | Blog Archive | Research archive at CBPP.org

Your Comment

Comment Policy:

Thank you for joining the conversation about important policy issues. Comments are limited to 1,500 characters and are subject to approval and moderation. We reserve the right to remove comments that:

  • are injurious, defamatory, profane, off-topic or inappropriate;
  • contain personal attacks or racist, sexist, homophobic, or other slurs;
  • solicit and/or advertise for personal blogs and websites or to sell products or services;
  • may infringe the copyright or intellectual property rights of others or other applicable laws or regulations; or
  • are otherwise inconsistent with the goals of this blog.

Posted comments do not necessarily represent the views of the CBPP and do not constitute official endorsement by CBPP. Please note that comments will be approved during the Center's business hours. If you have questions, please contact communications@cbpp.org.



 characters available