Social Security’s current state
Buried in the recent spending bill that kept the U.S. government operating is $100 million for the Social Security Administration (SSA) that is meant, in part, to fix a multi-year backlog of people waiting to hear if they qualify for disability benefits. The Social Security Disability Insurance program is supposed to provide a safety net for people unable to work due to injury or illness.
According to the latest SSA statistics, nearly 1 million people remain stuck in a hearing-decision backlog that averages 599 days (20 months). In some areas, wait times are up to 772 days.
In September 2017 testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee, Bea Disman, the acting chief of staff at the SSA, said the agency was implementing several measures to address the massive backlog. But by the end of 2017, almost no progress had been made on reducing the wait times for applicants.
Furthermore, in 2017 alone, more than 10,000 people died waiting to hear if they would be awarded insurance benefits that they had worked for years to earn – a 15 percent increase over the previous year.
Why the long wait for hearings?
There are several factors that have taken the backlog to a crisis level. First, the SSA has been without a Senate-confirmed leader since 2013, which has limited its ability to tackle this and other challenges.
In addition, the agency has failed to meet its own hiring goal for administrative law judges and support staff who conduct the review hearings, even though it told Congress extra hiring would be a primary tool for reducing the backlog. In fact, only 600 ALJs have been hired over the past three years and only 132 in the fiscal year 2017.
Additionally, the SSA requires that applicants provide duplicative medical records of various sorts and then states that it’s overwhelmed by the volume of records. Due to SSA concerns about subjectivity and physician bias, the agency also no longer assigns greater weight to the opinions of doctors who treat applicants when assessing an individual’s condition and his or her ability to work.
Instead it can choose to rely more on the opinion of its own, more cursory, processes to examine the patients or review medical evidence.
What this means for the SSA
The new funding is certainly welcome. But recent data from the SSA indicates that the agency is anticipating a dramatic rise in disability applications in 2018 and 2019. So, this story is far from over. Social Security disability benefits remain a complicated mess with no one at the helm to provide strategic leadership to the staff or to the judges who must assess the claims of former workers and their families.
By: Joyce Trudeau of Premier Disability Services, LLC®