Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler announced yesterday that the department, in a "new approach," will apply federal circuit court rulings on Social Security issues to most related cases within the same circuit instead of, in effect, ignoring rulings with which it disagrees.

Under HHS' old "non-acquiescence" policy, which dates back at least 20 years, the department applied a circuit court decision that conflicted with Social Security policies only to the people involved in that specific court case. It ignored the ruling when handling other similar cases within the circuit.

The department contended that that was the only way to maintain some semblance of uniformity nationwide. People involved with similar cases in the circuit still had to go to court to get disputed benefits.

Heckler said yesterday that although HHS will start applying the circuit court rulings widely, the department will retain the right to go back to court in "selected cases." The new policy will apply only to future cases.

Rep. James R. Jones (D-Okla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, said Heckler's new procedure "does not appear to make any basic changes in the administrative policy of non-acquiescence and does not seem to be consistent with congressional sentiment on this issue . . . ."

Jones noted that a conference report on 1984 amendments to the disability program instructed the secretary to pursue the non-acquiescence policy only in cases that the department planned to actively appeal through the courts. "That is not what this policy change does," he said.

Under the old policy, after a circuit court ruled in favor of an applicant for Social Security or disability benefits, the department would give him the benefits. But local hearing officers and administrative law judges in HHS (who are appeals officers) continued to reject requests for benefits in all similar cases in the circuit if the benefits were disallowed by Social Security rules.

Under the new procedure, the local hearing officers will continue to ignore the circuit court rulings in similar cases. But if the cases are appealed to an administrative law judge, the circuit court ruling will be applied, and applicants can qualify for benefits unless the department decides to go back to court.

Eileen Sweeney, an attorney with the National Senior Citizens Law Center, said the new rules are inadequate because a circuit ruling will apply only to those who pursue their cases to the administrative law judge and then only if the department decides not to retry the case.

Department sources responded that, in practice, a large proportion of cases are appealed to the administrative law judge level -- 90 percent of disability reviews, for example -- and said the department would refile only a few cases in which it felt it could get the courts to overturn a major precedent.