The 63rd Annual National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives Conference (NOSSCR) in Chicago focused on the increases in Social Security Disability (SSD) and Supplement Security Income (SSI) filings that are being exacerbated by the recession. Government officials and the leadership of NOSSCR looked at how the Social Security Administration (SSA) is handling the increases, and gave their predictions for the future of the program.
Kathryn Olson, a staff member on the Social Security subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Ways and Means Committee, said there is a “disability wave” occurring.
“She reported that the recession has increased the number of SSD and SSI claims being filed because in times when it’s difficult to get a job at all, it’s even more difficult when you have health problems,” said Jeffrey Freedman, senior partner, Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys at Law, who attended the conference with other members of the firm.
Olson said workers between the ages of 50 and 60 are in their most disability-prone years. These individuals might ordinarily push on at jobs they may have had for several years, but when they get laid off they are unable to find new jobs and are looking to SSD for income. In the face of this onslaught of new claimants, members of Congress are taking a hard look at what the retirement age should be and who should be eligible for SSD and SSI benefits.
“Ms. Olson stressed that this is a time when there are many cross currents putting forces on our Social Security system,” Freedman said.
Glenn Sklar, Deputy Commissioner, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR — the agency that reviews disability claims) presented information on his agency. For several years during the last administration, ODAR was underfunded. Since 2008, the agency has been facing significant backlogs for SSD claims at the hearing level. Now, the agency is fully funded and focused on reducing these backlogs, Sklar said. He reported that nationwide in 2009, the average time for getting a hearing was 429 days. This year that number was reduced to 400 days and the goal is to reduce that timeframe to 270 days by 2013.
“There’s a lot of pressure on the agency however, because right now there are 700,000 cases pending and ODAR has been receiving 50,000 to 60,000 cases per month over the past 18 months due to this `disability wave,’ ” Freedman said. “Their goal is to reduce the number of pending cases to 500,000, but at the moment it looks more like they are on track to have a million cases pending.”
Nancy Shor, executive director of NOSSCR, said she believes ODAR is doing a good job reducing the backlogs, but she questions whether the organization will have the staff to continue the job with filings increasing at the current rate. She also said she fears the Deficit Reduction Commission will increase the retirement age to 70 to reduce the strain on the Social Security Trust Fund.
“This might be okay for white collar workers, however those of us who represent SSD claimants find that people who do physical labor are barely making it to 65,” Freedman said. “Laborers will have to consider filing for Social Security early and collecting 25 or 30 percent less per month because they haven’t waited until full retirement age.”
Raising the retirement age may drive workers to file for SSD instead of waiting to reach the age of 70, Shor predicted. Another way the Deficit Commission is considering reducing costs is by making it more difficult for people to qualify for SSD based on mental impairments.
With talk of rolling back government spending to 2008 levels, there are no guarantees the Social Security system in this country will continue to function as it has in the past, Freedman said.