20 CFR 220.179 - Exceptions to medical improvement.

§ 220.179 Exceptions to medical improvement.

(a)First group of exceptions to medical improvement. The law provides for certain limited situations when the annuitant's disability can be found to have ended even though medical improvement has not occurred, if he or she can engage in substantial gainful activity. These exceptions to medical improvement are intended to provide a way of finding that the annuitant is no longer disabled in those limited situations where, even though there has been no decrease in severity of the impairment(s), evidence shows that the annuitant should no longer be considered disabled or never should have been considered disabled. If one of these exceptions applies, the Board must also show that, taking all of the annuitant's current impairment(s) into account, not just those that existed at the time of the Board's most recent favorable medical decision, the annuitant is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity before his or her disability can be found to have ended. As part of the review process, the annuitant will be asked about any medical or vocational therapy that he or she has received or is receiving. Those answers and the evidence gathered as a result as well as all other evidence, will serve as the basis for the finding that an exception applies.

(1)Substantial evidence shows that the annuitant is the beneficiary of advances in medical or vocational therapy or technology (related to his or her ability to work). Advances in medical or vocational therapy or technology are improvements in treatment or rehabilitative methods which have increased the annuitant's ability to do basic work activities. The Board will apply this exception when substantial evidence shows that the annuitant has been the beneficiary of services which reflect these advances and they have favorably affected the severity of his or her impairment(s) or ability to do basic work activities. This decision will be based on new medical evidence and a new residual functional capacity assessment. In many instances, an advanced medical therapy or technology will result in a decrease in severity as shown by symptoms, signs and laboratory findings which will meet the definition of medical improvement. This exception will, therefore, see very limited application.

(2)Substantial evidence shows that the annuitant has undergone vocational therapy (related to his or her ability to work). Vocational therapy (related to the annuitant's ability to work) may include, but is not limited to, additional education, training, or work experience that improves his or her ability to meet the vocational requirements of more jobs. This decision will be based on substantial evidence which includes new medical evidence and a new residual functional capacity assessment. If, at the time of the Board's review the annuitant has not completed vocational therapy which could affect the continuance of his or her disability, the Board will review such annuitant's claim upon completion of the therapy.

Example 1:
The annuitant was found to be disabled because the limitations imposed on him by his impairment(s) allowed him to only do work that was at a sedentary level of exertion. The annuitant's prior work experience was work that required a medium level of exertion with no acquired skills that could be transferred to sedentary work. His age, education, and past work experience at the time did not qualify him for work that was below this medium level of exertion. The annuitant enrolled in and completed a specialized training course which qualifies him for a job in data processing as a computer programmer in the period since he was awarded a disability annuity. On review of his claim, current evidence shows that there is no medical improvement and that he can still do only sedentary work. As the work of a computer programmer is sedentary in nature, he is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity when his new skills are considered.
Example 2:
The annuitant was previously entitled to a disability annuity because the medical evidence and assessment of his residual functional capacity showed he could only do light work. His prior work was considered to be of a heavy exertional level with no acquired skills that could be transferred to light work. His age, education, and past work experience did not qualify him for work that was below the heavy level of exertion. The current evidence and residual functional capacity show there has been no medical improvement and that he can still do only light work. Since he was originally entitled to a disability annuity, his vocational rehabilitation agency enrolled him in and he successfully completed a trade school course so that he is now qualified to do small appliance repair. This work is light in nature, so when his new skills are considered, he is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity even though there has been no change in his residual functional capacity.

(3)Substantial evidence shows that based on new or improved diagnostic or evaluative techniques the annuitant's impairment(s) is not as disabling as it was considered to be at the time of the most recent favorable decision. Changing methodologies and advances in medical and other diagnostic or evaluative techniques have given, and will continue to give, rise to improved methods for measuring and documenting the effect of various impairments on the ability to do work. Where, by such new or improved methods, substantial evidence shows that the annuitant's impairment(s) is not as severe as was determined at the time of the Board's most recent favorable medical decision, such evidence may serve as a basis for finding that the annuitant can engage in substantial gainful activity and is no longer disabled. In order to be used under this exception, however, the new or improved techniques must have become generally available after the date of the Board's most recent favorable medical decision.

(i)How the Board will determine which methods are new or improved techniques and when they become generally available. New or improved diagnostic techniques or evaluations will come to the Board's attention by several methods. In reviewing cases, the Board often becomes aware of new techniques when their results are presented as evidence. Such techniques and evaluations are also discussed and acknowledged in medical literature by medical professional groups and other governmental entities. Through these sources, the Board develops listings of new techniques and when they become generally available.

(ii)How the annuitant will know which methods are new or improved techniques and when they become generally available. The Board will let annuitants know which methods it considers to be new or improved techniques and when they become available.

Example:
The electrocardiographic exercise test has replaced the Master's 2-step test as a measurement of heart function since the time of the annuitant's last favorable medical decision. Current evidence shows that the annuitant's impairment, which was previously evaluated based on the Master's 2-step test, is not now as disabling as was previously thought. If, taking all his current impairments into account, the annuitant is now able to engage in substantial gainful activity, this exception would be used to find that he is no longer disabled even if medical improvement has not occurred.

(4)Substantial evidence demonstrates that any prior disability decision was in error. The Board will apply the exception to medical improvement based on error if substantial evidence (which may be evidence on the record at the time any prior determination of the entitlement to an annuity based on disability was made, or newly obtained evidence which relates to that determination) demonstrates that a prior determination was in error. A prior determination will be found in error only if:

(i) Substantial evidence shows on its face that the decision in question should not have been made (e.g., the evidence in file such as pulmonary function study values was misread or an adjudicative standard such as a medical/vocational rule in appendix 2 of this part was misapplied).

Example 1:
The annuitant was granted a disability annuity when it was determined that his epilepsy met Listing 11.02. This listing calls for a finding of major motor seizures more frequently than once a month as documented by EEG evidence and by a detailed description of a typical seizure pattern. As history of either diurnal episodes or nocturnal episodes with residuals interfering with daily activities is also required. On review, it is found that a history of the frequency of his seizures showed that they occurred only once or twice a year. The prior decision would be found to be in error, and whether the annuitant was still considered to be disabled would be based on whether he could currently engage in substantial gainful activity.
Example 2:
The annuitant's prior award of a disability annuity was based on vocational rule 201.14 in appendix 2 of this part. This rule applies to a person age 50-54 who has at least a high school education, whose previous work was entirely at semiskilled level, and who can do only sedentary work. On review it is found that at the time of the prior determination the annuitant was actually only age 46 and vocational rule 201.21 should have been used. This rule would have called for a denial of his claim and the prior decision is found to have been in error. Continuation of his disability would depend on a finding of his current inability to engage in substantial gainful activity.

(ii) At the time of the prior evaluation, required and material evidence of the severity of the annuitant's impairment(s) was missing. That evidence becomes available upon review, and substantial evidence demonstrates that had such evidence been present at the time of the prior determination, disability would not have been found.

Example:
The annuitant was found disabled on the basis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. The severity of his impairment was documented primarily by pulmonary function testing results. The evidence showed that he could do only light work. Spirometric tracings of this testing, although required, were not obtained, however. On review, the original report is resubmitted by the consultative examining physician along with the corresponding spirometric tracings. A review of the tracings shows that the test was invalid. Current pulmonary function testing supported by spirometric tracings reveals that the annuitant's impairment does not limit his ability to perform basic work activities in any way. Error is found based on the fact that required material evidence, which was originally missing, now becomes available and shows that if it had been available at the time of the prior determination, disability would not have been found.

(iii) Substantial evidence which is new evidence relating to the prior determination (of allowance or continuance) refutes the conclusions that were based upon the prior evidence (e.g., a tumor thought to be malignant was later shown to have actually been benign). Substantial evidence must show that had the new evidence (which relates to the prior determination) been considered at the time of the prior decision, the disability would not have been allowed or continued. A substitution of current judgment for that used in the prior favorable decision will not be the basis for applying this exception.

Example:
The annuitant was previously found entitled to a disability annuity on the basis of diabetes mellitus which the prior adjudicator believed was medically disabling. The prior record shows that the annuitant has “brittle” diabetes for which he was taking insulin. The annuitant's urine was 3 for sugar, and he alleged occasional hypoglycemic attacks caused by exertion. His doctor felt the diabetes was never really controlled because he was not following his diet or taking his medication regularly. On review, symptoms, signs and laboratory findings are unchanged. The current adjudicator feels, however, that the annuitant's impairment clearly is not medically disabling. Error cannot be found because it would represent a substitution of current judgment for that of the prior adjudicator that the annuitant's impairment was medically disabling. The exception for error will not be applied retroactively under the conditions set out above unless the conditions for reopening the prior decision are met.

(5)The annuitant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity. If the annuitant is currently engaging in substantial gainful activity, before the Board determines whether he or she is no longer disabled because of his or her work activity, the Board will consider whether he or she is entitled to a trial work period as set out in § 220.170. The Board will find that the annuitant's disability has ended in the month in which he or she demonstrated the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity (following completion of a trial work period, where it applies). This exception does not apply in determining whether the annuitant continues to have a disabling impairment(s) for purposes of deciding his or her eligibility for a reentitlement period.

(b)Second group of exceptions to medical improvement. In addition to the first group of exceptions to medical improvement, the following exceptions may result in a determination that the annuitant is no longer disabled. In these situations the decision will be made without a determination that the annuitant has medically improved or can engage in substantial gainful activity.

(1)A prior determination was fraudulently obtained. If the Board finds that any prior favorable determination was obtained by fraud, it may find that the annuitant is not disabled. In addition, the Board may reopen the claim.

(2)Failure to cooperate with the Board. If there is a question about whether the annuitant continues to be disabled and the Board requests that he or she submit medical or other evidence or go for a physical or mental examination by a certain date, the Board will find that the annuitant's disability has ended if he or she fails (without good cause) to do what is requested. The month in which the annuitant's disability ends will be the first month in which he or she failed to do what was requested.

(3)Inability of the Board to locate the annuitant. If there is question about whether the annuitant continues to be disabled and the Board is unable to find him or her to resolve the question, the Board will suspend annuity payments. If, after a suitable investigation, the Board is still unable to locate the annuitant, the Board will determine that the annuitant's disability has ended. The month such annuitant's disability ends will be the first month in which the question arose and the annuitant could not be found.

(4)Failure of the annuitant to follow prescribed treatment which would be expected to restore the ability to engage in substantial gainful activity. If treatment has been prescribed for the annuitant which would be expected to restore his or her ability to work, he or she must follow that treatment in order to be paid a disability annuity. If the annuitant is not following that treatment and he or she does not have good cause for failing to follow the treatment, the Board will find that his or her disability has ended. The month such annuitant's disability ends will be the first month in which he or she failed to follow the prescribed treatment.

[ 56 FR 12980, Mar. 28, 1991, as amended at 74 FR 63602, Dec. 4, 2009]

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United States Code

Title 20 published on 02-Jun-2018 03:57

The following are ALL rules, proposed rules, and notices (chronologically) published in the Federal Register relating to 20 CFR Part 220 after this date.

  • 2016-11-09; vol. 81 # 217 - Wednesday, November 9, 2016
    1. 81 FR 78757 - Providing Evidence of Disability
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      RAILROAD RETIREMENT BOARD
      Notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM).
      Submit comments on or before January 9, 2017.
      20 CFR Part 220