Overweight or obese individuals applying for Social Security Disability benefits do not qualify as disabled based on their weight alone. While a person’s weight, specifically a Body Mass Index (BMI) measurement greater than 30 qualifies them as ‘obese,’ no specific weight or BMI establishes obesity as a severe impairment within the Social Security Disability program. This wasn’t always the case.
Social Security Disability’s Listing for Obesity
The SSA Blue Book previously listed “Obesity” in their Federal Register, under listing 9.09. On August 24th, 1999, the SSA published a final rule deleting listing 9.09, Obesity, from the Listing of Impairments. The final rule became effective on October 25th, 1999.
The SSA issued an explanation for deleting listing 9.09. They stated that the criteria in the listing were not appropriate indicators of listing-level severity. And, that the criteria in the listing did not represent a degree of functional limitation that would prevent an individual from engaging in any gainful activity.
This was the old listing criteria in effect from 1993 until 1999:
SSA’s Former Obesity Listing Criteria
“9.09 – Obesity. Weight equal to or greater than the values specified in Table I (Example: Male, 6ft tall, 336 lbs. – disabled) and Table II (Example: Female, 5’6” tall, 274 lbs. – disabled).
(100 percent above the desired level), and one of the following:
A. History of pain and limitation of motion in any weight-bearing joint or the lumbosacral spine (on physical examination) associated with findings on medically acceptable imaging techniques of arthritis in the affected joint or lumbosacral spine; or
B. Hypertension with diastolic blood pressure persistently more than 100 mm. Hg measured with appropriate size cuff; or
C. History of congestive heart failure manifested by past evidence of vascular congestion such as hepatomegaly, peripheral or pulmonary edema; or
D. Chronic venous insufficiency with superficial varicosities in a lower extremity with pain on weight bearing and persistent edema; or
E. Respiratory disease with total forced vital capacity equal to or less than 2.0 L. or a level of hypoxemia at rest equal to or less than the values specified in Table III-A or III-B or III-C..”
Recent Updates to Social Security Disability’s Obesity Regulations
SSA continues to update their regulations regarding obesity. There are three updates on the books to date. First on May 15th, 2000, with SSR 00-3p, again on September 12th of 2002 with SSR 02-1p, and finally, the most recent being Social Security Regulation (SSR) 19-2p enacted on May 20th, 2019. Below, we’ve gathered the most relevant information from SSA’s current guidance.
How Social Security Evaluates Obese People
Despite SSA deleting the listing, they do consider obesity in relationship to your impairment. When evaluating your claim, SSA considers any symptoms such as fatigue or pain that limit functioning. This includes any functional limitations in the person’s ability to do basic work activities resulting from obesity. If the person’s obesity, alone or in combination with another impairment(s), significantly limits a claimant’s ability to do basic work, the SSA finds that the impairment(s) is severe.
What Does SSA Consider Obese in Assessing a Person’s RFC?
The SSA also considers the limiting effects of obesity when assessing a person’s RFC. RFC stands for residual functional capacity. It is defined as the most an adult can do despite his or her limitation(s). As with any other impairment, SSA will explain how we reached our conclusion on whether obesity causes any limitations.
A person may have limitations in any of the exertional functions. Exertional functions are sitting, standing, walking, lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling. A person may also have limitations in the nonexertional functions of climbing, balancing, stooping, kneeling, crouching, and crawling.
Obesity increases stress on weight-bearing joints. It may also contribute to limitation of the range of motion of the skeletal spine and extremities. Obesity may also affect a person’s ability to manipulate objects. Especially if there is adipose (fatty) tissue in the hands and fingers.
The SSA assesses the RFC to show the effect obesity has upon the person’s ability to perform routine movement and necessary physical activity within the work environment. Obese people may have limitations in their ability to sustain a function over time. In cases involving obesity, fatigue may affect the person’s physical and mental ability to sustain work activity. This may be particularly true in cases involving obesity and sleep apnea.
In conclusion, the combined effects of obesity with another impairment(s) may be greater than the effects of each of the impairments considered separately. For example, someone who has obesity and arthritis affecting a weight-bearing joint may have more pain and functional limitations than the person would have due to the arthritis alone.
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