Disability and Drug/Alcohol Abuse

By Jennifer Scherf-Cook

If you are disabled and have a drug or alcohol problem, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will inquire as to whether or not your drug or alcohol problem is a “contributing factor” to your disability.

What does this mean?  It means that if you are claiming disability due to mental impairments and you are abusing drugs that could cause or increase the symptoms you are complaining of, there is no way to tell how much of your symptoms is due to your condition and how much is due to the drugs, so you will not be considered disabled.

Likewise, if you have cirrhosis and are still drinking heavily, you cannot be found disabled because you are continuing to cause damage and are not following your doctor’s orders to stop drinking.

If, however, you are claiming disability due to losing two legs and you are also abusing drugs, the drug abuse has nothing to do with your disability and is not a “contributing factor,” so you can be found disabled.

The exception to the first two examples is that if your doctor says that your underlying condition is so severe or so advanced that even if you stopped abusing drugs or alcohol, you would still be disabled, you can be found disabled while abusing drugs or alcohol.

This regulation upsets a lot of people.  But the fact is that drug addiction and alcoholism are treated as illnesses.  If you cured the illness and still had the underlying problems, you would be disabled.

It would be the same if you smoked or ate unhealthy food that caused your diabetes or heart disease.  If you stopped smoking and ate healthy, you would be found disabled only if your conditions were still severe.  If you continued to smoke or refused to follow a diabetic diet, SSA would not find you disabled because you were not following doctor’s orders

The threshold is what I like to call a “but for” test. But for your continued actions, such as smoking, eating unhealthy, drinking, abusing drugs, would your condition still be severe enough to be considered disabling?  If the answer is no — if you were to stop the behavior you’d get better — then you are not disabled.  If the answer is yes — even if you stopped the behavior you’d still be disabled — then you are disabled.

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