Substance abuse as basis for Social Security Disability claim

Jun 20 2015

“Clever” bumper stickers seem to appear everywhere: “I Have 99 Problems but Beer Ain’t One;” “Alcohol … because no great story starts with a salad;” “Drugs may lead to nowhere, but at least it is the scenic route.” For some, the bumper stickers are cause for a chuckle. For others, they cut a little close to home; a reminder that we, or someone close to us, might just have a problem with drug or alcohol use. For others, it is more than just an occasional problem. Chronic substance abuse undoubtedly interferes with functioning in daily life, it interferes with family, and in some cases prevents a person from being able to work and hold down a job.

Can debilitating alcohol or drug abuse ever be the basis for a claim of Social Security Disability benefits? Most people understand the rather straightforward eligibility standard for Social Security Disability benefits-you must have an illness or injury or disease that prevents you from financially supporting yourself. What many people do not understand is that substance abuse is not necessarily disqualifying, although it does complicate the determination process.

How Social Security looks at substance abuse

Any analysis should begin with the simple and straightforward proposition that if your substance abuse is your disability, then any claim for SSA disability benefits will be denied. For many people, however, there is an underlying medical or psychological condition which may be disabling. In these circumstances, the SSA performs a more complicated analysis where the SSA tries to separate the substance abuse and disability symptoms to determine the cause of the disability. In the first step, the SSA will make a determination of all your conditions, including the substance abuse, and decide whether a disability exists. If the determination is affirmative, then the question becomes whether continued drinking or drug use is a contributing and material factor in the disability. If the SSA finds that even if you quit drinking or using drugs the underlying conditions would still be disabling, then eligibility for disability benefits can be established. If the SSA finds that the drinking or drug use makes the underlying condition worse, then the finding will be not eligible. The determination can be even more complicated when the other impairment is a mental health impairment such as severe depression.

There is also a path to benefits for certain severe alcohol-related conditions which qualifies as a substance abuse disorder. To meet the requirements, you must have suffered changes in your health due to your regular abuse of a drug, prescription or illegal, which affects the central nervous system, and have a physical or mental impairment caused by the substance abuse which meets certain specified conditions. Some of these conditions are organic mental disorders, liver damage, gastritis, pancreatitis, and seizures among others.

Seeking experienced representation

SSA disability claims involving drugs or alcohol abuse are usually quite complicated and representation by an experienced Colorado disability attorney can make the difference between a successful claim and one that fails.