APA advocates successfully for psychological testing in disability evaluations

The Social Security Administration has agreed to change guidance that recommended memory testing be only rarely used in disability cases involving memory impairments

By Legal and Regulatory Affairs staff

February 28, 2010 — Many psychologists contribute to the important work of the Social Security Administration (SSA) as employees, consultants, disability examiners, clinicians who provide medical evidence on behalf of their patients and experts involved with judicial proceedings. Psychologists — and psychological testing — are often essential in evaluating the large number of applicants for disability benefits who suffer from mental disorders.      

The American Psychological Association (APA) Practice Directorate recently advocated successfully for a change in SSA guidance that seemed to inappropriately discourage the use of psychological testing. The SSA guidance was a Q&A disseminated to some SSA employees recommending that memory testing should only rarely be used in disability cases involving memory impairments. 

In response to this Q&A, APA sent a letter to Commissioner Michael J. Astrue asking SSA to clarify the communication. We expressed concern that the communication did not accurately reflect the scientific evidence regarding the utility of psychological memory testing and could lead to reduced accuracy in disability determinations. 

APA’s letter summarized evidence of the widespread acceptance and empirical basis for the use of memory testing for purposes of both diagnosis and evaluation of functioning, particularly in cases of organic mental disorders. APA also pointed out that although test results must always be considered as part of a comprehensive evaluation including other sources of evidence, test data are often the most objective evidence available. 

On a conference call held recently including several high-level SSA officials, APA was informed that as a result of our letter, SSA had moved the guidance in question from the active part of their internal website to the archives and clearly labeled it as “not to be followed.” 

SSA staff also informed us that it plans to update its Program Operations Manual System (POMS) this summer and to propose updates to its mental disorders listings and information relating to psychological testing later this year via a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM). Although SSA cannot discuss the contents of the NPRM in advance of its release, it invited us to submit comments during the rulemaking process. SSA also thanked us for APA’s comments during a 2003 rulemaking process regarding revision of medical criteria for evaluating mental disorders.

We look forward to continuing to work with SSA on issues affecting psychologists and to commenting on SSA’s proposed rulemaking later this year.

The full text of the APA Practice Directorate’s letter to the SSA (PDF, 218 KB) can be found on the right rail of this page. For more information, please contact the Legal and Regulatory Affairs Department by e-mail or call (800) 374-2723.

PLEASE NOTE: Legal issues are complex and highly fact-specific and require legal expertise that cannot be provided by any single article. In addition, laws change over time and vary by jurisdiction. The information in this article should not be used as a substitute for obtaining personal legal advice and consultation prior to making decisions regarding individual circumstances.