Updated: Nov 14
The consequences are 'devastating,' lawmaker says
Lorie Konish Wednesday, 1 Nov 2023 09:33 AM EDT
Applicants for Social Security disability benefits face long wait times amid a record backlog of applications.
Experts and lawmakers say more can be done to expedite the process.
If you've applied for Social Security disability benefits and are still waiting for an answer, you're not alone.
"For the first time in history, more than 1 million people are waiting on the Social Security Administration to process their initial disability claim," said Rep. Drew Ferguson, R-Ga., chair of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, at a hearing last week.
It currently takes 220 days for claims to be decided, on average, which is more than 100 days longer than it did in 2019, Ferguson said. That is also more than 150 days longer than the Social Security Administration's standard for minimum level of performance, he said.
"The real-world consequences for these individuals who are unable to work and wait for their disability decision is devastating," Ferguson said.
'He died from the conditions that he applied with' (initial disability claims)
Experts who testified at the hearing said they have seen the effect of the growing wait times firsthand.
One Social Security disability applicant finally had a hearing scheduled for this month but did not live until the scheduled date, according to David Camp, interim CEO at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives.
That came after his claim for Social Security disability benefits had been denied initially and again at reconsideration, a process where initial decisions may be appealed.
"He died from the conditions that he applied with, that went untreated," Camp said.
While the patient sought help with 825 days left to live, Social Security wasted more than 500 days with its delays.
"He could not live long enough to outlast Social Security's capacity to delay," Camp said.
Moreover, 90% of the reconsideration findings were identical to the initial conclusions, he noted.
From 2010 to 2022, claims for Social Security disability benefits declined by 37%, while claims for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, fell by 49%, according to Camp. Yet wait times have increased.
"The problem is Social Security's policies," Camp said.
Linda Kerr-Davis, acting assistant deputy commissioner of operations at the Social Security Administration, testified at the hearing and acknowledged that the average seven-month wait time for a decision is a problem.
"This is simply not acceptable to you or to us," Kerr-Davis said.
The agency has been taking steps to address the issue within the constraints of its budget, she said, by redirecting experienced personnel, hiring new full-time professionals and working on improvements to processes and policies.
"The steps we have taken are just beginning to show positive results," Kerr-Davis said.
Experts and lawmakers who testified at the hearing raised more suggestions. These included:
1. Eliminate the reconsideration process
The Social Security disability application may involve an initial application followed by another step called reconsideration, if that first attempt to receive benefits is rejected.
If an applicant does not agree with the decision made during reconsideration, they may then meet with an administrative law judge.
Meeting with a judge is often a more thorough process and typically results in more approvals for benefits, experts said. On the other hand, reconsideration often reaffirms the findings of an initial decision and often adds extra time to process a disability case.
Consequently, experts questioned whether the reconsideration step was a necessary part of the process. Eliminating it altogether may reduce the application process time for individuals who urgently need financial support.
The Social Security Administration has tested eliminating the reconsideration stage, though it has not shared the results, according to Camp.
"If there is a data-driven reason for reconsideration, show us," Camp said.
Jennifer Burdick, co-chair of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities Social Security Task Force, also questioned the need for the practice, which is "largely seen as a rubber stamp," she said.
Eliminating that phase of the process could free disability determination services staff to work on initial disability claims and reduce backlog, she said.
2. Increase funding for Social Security Administration
Congressional Republicans have proposed a 30% federal budget cut, which would be "completely devastating" to the Social Security Administration, said Kerr-Davis.
Office hours for the agency's field offices would be shortened, while disability benefit applicants would see wait times increase by at least two months, she added.
Even level funding from fiscal year 2023 into 2024 would be detrimental to the agency, Kerr-Davis said, as it would not be enough money to build the disability determination services workforce or maintain it.
"There just needs to be more bodies to work these claims," Burdick said. "This won't happen unless Congress provides SSA with meaningful sustained funding consistent with the President's 2024 budget request."
3. Ensure Social Security uses current resources wisely
While the Social Security Administration is unable to keep up with its current disability claims, it is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on outreach efforts to increase claims, Ferguson noted.
"It feels like those dollars should be going to address the issue that is at hand," Ferguson said.
In the past 12 years, the agency has invested more than $300 million to obtain up-to-date occupational data that can be used to determine whether a claimant can work in today's economy.
Yet the Social Security Administration continues to rely on occupational data that is more than 30 years out of date, he noted.
"The SSA is making it harder for claimants and making more work for itself," Ferguson said.