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Insufficient funding of the SSA deeply hurts disabled Americans

By Jeffrey Freedman

The personal stories never end: six years to get approval for Social Security Disability (SSD) benefits for a client who was declared 100% disabled by the Veterans Administration; six years for a client with chronic pancreatitis, anxiety, depression, and PTSD; and five years for an applicant with multi-level lumbar fusion, severe COPD, and depression.

Clearly these claimants — who paid Social Security during their entire work lives — could no longer work. Why take so long to award benefits?

According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the national average for processing initial SSD applications in 2010 was 110 to 120 days. In December 2023, it rose to 228 days. At the second step of the process, “reconsideration,” it took an average of 213 days to get a decision. In Buffalo, it takes about 10 months to get a hearing once one is requested. I have handled SSD cases for more than 40 years, and the situation has become dire.

Federal data tells us about 10,000 claimants each year die waiting to get a decision on their SSD claim. Last year SSA reached a milestone — the backlog of cases hit one million.

There are several reasons for this. The pandemic shut down SSA offices for more than two years, and the agency’s workforce shrank to the lowest it has been in 25 years. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), representing more than 42,000 SSA workers, blames the situation on the loss of experienced staff and loss of funding. Taking inflation into account, the SSA’s budget has shrunk 17 percent since 2010.

Local field offices, staffed by state employees, have been affected by low wages, insufficient budgets, hiring freezes, and a 16 percent decline in workforce, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Additionally, in 2015 Congress required medical or psychological consultants to review every claim, where disability examiners previously handled many of the cases; plus, electronic medical records have significantly increased the amount of evidence in each claim.

The SSA is improving the gridlock by sending three hundred federal employees to field offices; boosting salaries; providing additional training and mentoring; and doing more timely background checks on new employees, but the most critical need is funding. President Biden requested an increase bringing the agency to $15.5 billion in 2024, which, according to the SSA, would provide the necessary funds to return to former standards. The AFGE says it will take more — recommending an additional $20 billion over 10 years.

Congress continues to play budget games by threatening shutdowns, further delaying funding increases the SSA sorely needs. One million claimants are waiting for action. Some of them will die waiting.