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Congress should gear up to avert an SSDI crisis

The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted American life as we know it, from minor changes such as social distancing and mask wearing, to the loss of more than 200,000 lives and 16 million jobs.

Unfortunately, even if Covid went away tomorrow, we would see fallout from this disease in our future. No one knows the lasting effects of Covid on the health of those who have had it and recovered. Some may never be able to return to work due to a combination of factors: the effects of their illness, and changes in the job market.

We can expect those individuals to turn to Social Security Disability Insurance for support, but is the Social Security Administration ready for an influx of SSDI claims?

The United States has the strictest criteria in the developed world for proving eligibility for disability benefits. It denies 67% of initial applications, causing severely disabled applicants to go through a strenuous appeals process to get benefits.

After the Great Recession, applications for SSDI increased to the point the SSA became overwhelmed and a backlog of claims built up, creating delays in the processing of cases. In 2015, the backlog was so large, it took an average of more than two years before a claimant received a benefits check.

Currently, unemployment is significantly higher than it was during and after the Great Recession.

A recent study by the General Accounting Office showed that from 2008 to 2019, almost 110,000 SSDI applicants died in the midst of appealing their claims; and between 2014 and 2019, 50,000 claimants filed bankruptcy. If the SSA continues business as usual post-Covid, we face yet another crisis – more deaths, more financial instability and more bankrupt Americans.

Overall, those who appeal have a 50% chance of receiving benefits. As Monique Morrissey, Economic Policy Institute economist, says, “claimants receiving benefits after appeal isn’t necessarily a good thing because it highlights that most people should have received their benefits from the start.”

Congress justifies denial rates and the appeals process because it is paranoid about fraud. Yet, the rate of fraud is a fraction of 1%. Americans deserve better from a program they pay into their entire working lives.

Those stricken by coronavirus and unemployment who need SSDI benefits need a break. They have a right to receive the benefits promised by our government without having to wait years.

Congress should revisit the criteria for SSDI benefits and gear up now for the next effect of the Covid-19 pandemic – a significant increase in applications for SSDI.