The Growing Frustration With The Social Security Disability Backlog

Social Security Administration handling disability casesIn an attempt to find a way to address the growing number of backlogged Social Security Disability cases, the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security held hearings recently to discuss potential solutions.  According to the committee, the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Disability claims backlogs have grown to unprecedented levels, with more than 1.3 million Americans currently awaiting a decision regarding their claim.  In addition, these backlogs are especially severe for the more than 765,000 Americans who have had their cases denied at an earlier stage of the process and have requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). These individuals now wait for an average of 532 days for a decision on their appeal.

Contributing to this backlog has been a 20% increase in SSD claims and a loss of experienced, well-trained staff at the SSA.  A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report issued in December 2007 stated that the backlog was due to substantial growth in the numbers of disability claims, staff losses and turnover, and management weaknesses.  In addition, the GAO found that 72% of the claims are held up at the hearing stage.

Congress has also been blamed for some of SSA’s problems, as they’ve cut the Administration’s budget over the years and added additional responsibilities to the already overburdened agency. However, last year, Congress provided $150 million more for the SSA’s administrative funding than the President requested.  This money was to be used to tackle the backlog and staffing issues at the SSA.

Regardless of who is at fault, this is a very serious issue for disabled Americans who rely on disability benefits to provide cash for living expenses when they can no longer work.

Reducing The Backlog

The SSA has promised to take steps to reduce the number of existing hearings backlogs, including:

  • Updating medical eligibility criteria
  • Expediting cases where eligibility is clear
  • Improving the electronic processing system
  • Focusing on resolving claims at the hearing level through a number of targeted actions
  • Automating file assembly at the hearings level
  • Allowing electronic signatures on approved cases
  • Providing for employees’ shared access to the folder
  • Expanding Internet support and functionality for claimants or their representatives

Lawmakers, however, have remained skeptical.  Concerns have been expressed that the agency’s plans for hiring support staff are not sufficient to address the large hearings backlog, that planned automation improvements will not meet expectations, and that an overemphasis on speed could degrade quality or compromise program integrity.

Focus Of The Congressional Hearing

The hearing before the subcommittee focused on:

  • The performance of SSA’s hearing offices
  • Factors that affect productivity
  • Initiatives SSA is taking to increase efficiency and productivity
  • Other approaches to improving productivity without compromising the quality and impartiality of decision-making or the due process rights of claimants

It remains to be seen if anything will come of this hearing.

Is The Economy Increasing the Social Security Disability Claim backlog?

Just when you think a 2-year backlog of disability claims at the Social Security Administration can’t get any worse, the SSA commissioner announces that the economy is causing an increase in the number of SSDI claims.  These new claims could hamper the SSA’s plans to slash the time that it takes to process New Yorker’s disability claims over the next five years.

It isn’t just the poor economy that is driving up the number of disability claims.  As baby boomers continue to get older, many are succumbing to disability and illness that leave them unable to work and provide for themselves and their families.  Unfortunately for the SSA, an increase in the number of boomers needing help coincides with an economy that is driving many Americans to look for help in the form of a SSDI claim.

With the agency experiencing a 10% increase in cases attributed to the worsening economy, their ability to process cases faster and get money to those in need will be compromised.

The estimated 250,000 additional cases were not planned or budgeted for by SSA, but recent news that the agency is to receive one billion dollars in stimulus relief could change that.

Fortunately, recent efforts by lawmakers and SSA officials could mean that relief is on the way for SSDI applicants. Lawmakers have decided to:improved computer system to help the backlog

  1. Hire 155 new Administrative Law Judges (ALJ) to hear disability cases
  2. Modernize the SSA’s National Computer Center
  3. Streamline the claims decision making process
  4. Reduce the SSDI backlog to an average 270 days
  5. Offer Quick Disability Determination and Compassionate Allowance programs for applicants with serious medical issues

The above moves are not without controversy, however.  While hiring new ALJs will eventually help the backlog of cases, the new judges won’t be in place immediately.  Clearly the hiring of any new employees, no matter how many, won’t provide an immediate impact on case processing times.  Not only that, but if SSDI applications are increasing as much as the agency claims, the agency’s hiring efforts may not be enough to have the desired effect.

If you’ve ever had any involvement with the disability claims process at the Social Security Administration, you know it moves a little slowly.  Glacially slow.  Mind-numbingly slow. But an upgrade to the computer systems could help to remedy this. The new data center is controversial with those who believe that the money allocated for a new computer system could be better spent on reducing the case backlog in other ways.  However, with the number of claims rising faster than expected, an upgrade seems unavoidable.

Even though the changes the computer system are already beginning to take place, with any technology, there are still issues.  The system has experienced periodic outages due to system instability, forcing local SSA offices to revert back to paper processing.  And, until all hospitals and healthcare providers use the IT health network, the long, slow paperwork trail will still be the only option for moving many disability claims forward.  The SSA is crawling forward with its modernization plans, but there is still a long, long way to go.

What is the SSA doing about the disability claims backlog now?

Despite the economic stimulus package and the implemented changes, once again, the average processing times nationally have climbed back up to 463 days in 2015. The wait time is even worse in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut area.

Average Processing Times Social Security Hearings as of 2015

Albany 498
Buffalo 579
Bronx 633
Brooklyn 723
Long Island 538
Jersey City 516
Hartford 480
New York 465
New Haven 491
Newark 567
Queens 591
Rochester 590
White Plains 524
Syracuse 473
South Jersey 602

One of the biggest challenges for SSA is reducing the amount of time it takes for Request For Hearing to work through the system. If your claim was denied at the Initial Level then you should have requested a hearing to have the SSA reconsider your right to benefits. The amount of time it takes for an applicant’s appeal to make its way to an actual hearing is skyrocketing, as noted above.  Even worse, if you lose at the hearing level before an administrative law judge and decide to appeal to the Appeals Council it can take several years to wait for a decision.  That’s right, if you are unlucky enough to have your claim denied, you have to get back in line and wait even longer.  It almost seems as though SSA wants to discourage applicants from filing appeals.  Who has a year – or five – to wait for much needed disability payments?

To get help with your Social Security Disability claim, contact Markhoff & Mittman today.  We have been helping injured and disabled workers for the last 80 years, and we can help you, too.

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