The Social Security Administration (SSA) has been struggling with record-high backlogs of Social Security Disability (SSD) claims since 2008. These backlogs have resulted in claimants having to wait up to two years to receive benefits. The Buffalo region ranked 137th out of 143 regions in the country. Claimants wait an average of 574 days in our region.
The backlogs began when the Federal government did not adequately fund the SSA. In 2010, Congress significantly increased its funding, and the SSA has taken a number of steps to reduce the backlog by hiring additional staff and Administrative Law Judges (ALJs). However, the recession has caused more disabled workers to apply for benefits, and the backlog is again on the rise. The SSA predicts there will be one million claimants waiting for hearings by the end of this year.
Ten years ago the SSA instituted a pilot program in 10 states that eliminated the reconsideration level of the claims process. New York was fortunate to be one of those states.
Now, as a part of its plan to reduce the backlogs and the length of time applicants must wait to obtain benefits, the SSA is considering reinstating the reconsideration level in the 10 states that have taken part in the pilot program. SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue testified at a House Ways and Means Subcommittee meeting, saying reinstatement of reconsideration “would allow a significant number of cases to be allowed at reconsideration, resulting in earlier payment to those claimants and a reduction in the number of hearing requests.”
This is, in fact, contrary to data collected by the SSA. In essence, the reconsideration level is a repeat of the initial application level, where, typically, the same SSA staff person reviews the same documentation submitted at the initial application stage and comes to the same conclusion. The reconsideration stage actually adds 104 days to the total average processing time, according to the Congressional Research Service, which obtains its data from the SSA.
Not only does the reconsideration stage increase the time it takes to process a claim, it drives up costs. Costs for staff, consultative physicians, review physicians, and processing of paperwork go up, with no foreseeable benefits.
Reconsideration does not require SSA to notify claimants of any missing documentation, and there is no face-to-face meeting between the decision-makers and the disabled person. Data from the SSA shows the reconsideration level does not result in more correct decisions. It is only when claimants get beyond the paper review at the hearing level and meet face-to-face with an ALJ that decisions become more accurate.
Often, claimants become discouraged when they are turned down first at the application level and then at the reconsideration stage. This is especially true if they do not have the representation of an attorney and are not well informed about the SSD application process. This adds to their already depressing situation of health and financial problems.
Earl Pomery (D-ND), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee and their Social Security Subcommittee, has said: “Americans with severe disabilities cannot afford to wait years to receive benefits they desperately need and to which they are entitled.” If reconsideration were in place today, instead of waiting 574 days for a claim to be processed, the average time an applicant in the Buffalo region would have to wait would be 682 days.
Putting the reconsideration level back into the process in New York state is going to add to the workload and costs at our local ODAR office, the time claimants have to wait to receive benefits, and perhaps, most importantly, to the financial stress claimants must endure while they go through the application process.