Pilot Streamlines Benefits

WASHINGTON (05/02/2000) - Applying for and obtaining federal disability benefits can be a paper-intensive and time- consuming process. However, help may be on the way through a pilot project designed to streamline this process.

The Office of Personnel Management and the Social Security Administration launched the Federal Medical Evidence of Record (FEDMER) pilot program as a way to cut down on the paperwork required to apply for disability benefits. Before FEDMER, employees had to fill out forms with each agency separately, and little data was shared between the agencies.

By law, OPM must offset your Federal Employees Retirement System disability benefit with any SSA disability benefit you are entitled to until you reach age 62. So when you apply for FERS disability benefits with OPM, you also must apply for Social Security benefits. OPM has to know if SSA has approved your application so that it can adjust your FERS annuity to ensure that you're not overpaid.

FEDMER is restricted to FERS employees in Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia. In the future, it may include Civil Service Retirement System employees. All agencies are eligible to participate in the FEDMER pilot, although not every agency has signed up yet.

Contact your personnel office to find out if your agency is among those participating.

If you are employed under FERS and live in the FEDMER pilot area, the first thing you need to do is contact your local personnel office. The office will provide all the information and forms you need and will guide you through the entire process. Alternatively, you can obtain all the required forms and information on OPM's World Wide Web site at www.opm.gov.

If you decide not to participate in FEDMER, you must apply for disability benefits at both your personnel office and your local Social Security office.

If you don't use FEDMER, then you must use the current process, which means that OPM and SSA may not share any medical evidence.

If you believe you are eligible for both disability benefit programs, it makes sense to participate in FEDMER.

If you are on annual and/or sick leave, you will not be denied SSA disability benefits because you are engaged in "substantial gainful activity," which means that you are currently working and receiving pay. Your local personnel office can help you submit the proper documentation to SSA to show you are receiving pay because of some type of leave. Ordinarily, SSA would disallow an application made by an individual who is on an organization's payroll because that means the person can work.

Sick leave or annual leave payments do not count against you, but your agency has to spell that out to SSA. That is one of the advantages of the FEDMER program -- the ability for OPM, your personnel office and SSA to exchange information freely.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached by e-mail at miltzall@starpower.net.

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