COPD and Disability: Is COPD a Work Disability?

copd and disabilityChronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) can lead to varying levels of disability that may interfere with your ability to maintain regular, full-time employment. But is COPD a work disability that automatically qualifies you for social security disability benefits? That depends on a number of factors.

How is COPD Evaluated?

The Social Security Administration (SSA) evaluates COPD under Listing 3.02 for chronic pulmonary insufficiency. You’ll usually meet the listing if a spirometry test shows that the amount of air you exhale in one second, referred to as your FEV1, is less than or equal to a specified amount given your height. For example, a person who is 5’5” tall will meet the listing if their FEV1 is less than or equal to 1.25 liters. Those 5 feet and under will meet the listing if their FEV1 is less than or equal to 1.05 and those 6 feet and over will meet the listing if their FEV1 is less than or equal to 1.65.

What Else is Needed?

A spirometry test isn’t the only tool used to determine whether you qualify for benefits under Social Security. In disability cases based on lung conditions, the SSA requires well-documented, objective medical evidence, including pulmonary function testing, to prove that the disability is severe. Obtaining ongoing treatment from a qualified specialist such as a pulmonologist (lung specialist) is also critical.

Most folks who qualify for disability do so based on a “medical vocational allowance,” which considers a person’s age, education, work experience and residual functional capacity (a description of the physical and mental capabilities you possess in spite of your disability). An RFC form completed by your treating doctor and submitted to Social Security will help you prove your claim and should be submitted in the beginning stages of your claim with the rest of your paperwork. The form should attest to your ability to walk, stand, sit, lift and carry. It should also address any issues you may have with exposure to dust, fumes, odors or extreme temperatures.

Lastly, many lung conditions, including COPD, tend to get worse as you age. If you’re over 50, SSA’s Grid Rules may make it easier to demonstrate that you’re unable to perform your regular full-time job.

What are Grid Rules?

Are you 50 years of age or older? If so, it may be easier to get approved for Social Security disability benefits than someone who’s younger than you. Because Social Security believes it’s harder for someone older to learn a new job skill or transition into a new work place than a younger person, SSA may make a “vocational adjustment” based on your age. Additionally, there are 4 other grid factors besides your age that Social Security will look at: education level, skill level of your past work experience, whether you’ve learned any skills that could be useful in another job and your RFC.
1. Age: Generally, the older a person is, the easier it is to get approved for Social Security disability benefits.
2. Education: The lower your education level, the more likely you’ll get approved for benefits under the grids. This is because Social Security knows it’s more difficult for people with less education to find jobs they’re qualified to perform.
3. Past Work Experience: The SSA classifies jobs under 3 categories for the purpose of the grids: unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled. Your past jobs will be classified by the SSA based on how you describe them and how they’re classified by the Department of Labor (DOL).
4. Do You Have Skills that Can Transfer to a New Job? If the work you did in the past was semi-skilled or skilled, the SSA will consider if any skills you learned while on the job could transfer into a new job. If they say your skills are transferable, they will be more likely to determine that there is other work you can do.
5. Residual Functional Capacity: The SSA will use the objective medical evidence you or your doctor provided them to perform a detailed assessment of your ability to perform certain job-related functions such as standing, walking, lifting, carrying and pushing. The SSA will then give you an RFC for sedentary work, light work, medium work, heavy work or very heavy work. In general, the heavier your RFC, the more difficult it will be for you to be approved under SSA’s grid rules.

Conclusion: So is COPD a Work Disability?

Whether COPD is a work disability depends upon a number of factors that are unique to each individual. Some folks choose to get a lawyer to help them file a claim for Social Security disability benefits either initially or upon appeal after they’re been denied. For more information about qualifying for Social Security disability, visit the Social Security Administration.

By Deborah Leader RN, BSN, PHN



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