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The Ever-Growing Disability Backlog

By Scott B. Elkind, Esq.

If the economic news has not been bad enough for the majority of citizens of the U.S., the news for the disabled only grows worse.

To understand how this backlog has come to be requires a quick study in the number of cases SSA handles. In 2006, over 2 million workers applied for disability insurance benefits. Only 550,000 persons found disabled and awarded benefits in that year which includes prior, ongoing cases. As just over half of claims will ultimately succeed, the remaining ineligible applicants added substantially to an increasing backlog of cases. At the beginning of 2009, the backlog was numbered at 768,540 cases and growing worse due to the economic downturn.

Recent reporting from the Office of the Inspector General include many examples of mismanagement which include:

  • New hiring of administrative law judges will result in a desired number of hearings to be held by 2013, reducing the backlog to a “desired level” of 466,000 by the end of that year
  • Complaints by Offices of Disability and Review that there are not sufficient executives to perform strategic planning
  • Projected requests for hearings on new cases as follows:
    Year Projected Receipts at Odar
    2009 641,000
    2010 698,000
    2011 736,000
    2012 699,000
    2013 670,000
  • Attrition rate of DDS examiners at 12.5% for 2008 and 9.8% for 2009 (as of 2/9) with varying amounts in differing offices, but including rates of over 40 – 60% in Alaska, Maine, Louisiana, Delaware, Oregon, and Wyoming
  • A large ranging workload in DDS dispositions in 2008 ranging from 8,531 in District of Columbia to 357,556 in California.
  • 69,324 employees absent without leave in 2007 at SSA accounted for a loss of 101,823 hours
  • A sampling of claims in 2006 resulted in the following waiting periods
    Level of Review Processing Time
    Initial 131
    Reconsideration 279
    ALJ Hearing 811
    Appeals Council 1,053
    Federal Court 1,720
  • Average processing times report were as follows:
    Decision Processing Time
    Initial 88
    Hearing 483
    Appeals Council 203

How does the current administration plan to address this? By investing $4.3B over the next five years into Social Security to eliminate fraud, abuse and waste in Medicare, Medicaid and the Social Security Disability insurance program. The monies have been allocated due to a “lack of oversight” concerning these programs with federal spending on the disability insurance program increasing 65% from 2001 to 2007. Conversely, a decrease in “full” medical reviews on claims declining from 840,000 to 190,000 during the same time period according to SSA. Given the relatively small benefit paid and the economic constraint this places on an individual, the implication for fraud seems unlikely.

The current administration has requested only another $900M to address the backlog with $500M going toward addressing reducing the backlog and other $400M put toward modernizing the SSA computer system (currently 30 years old).

The situation is compounded by layoffs and furloughs in the state-run Department of Disability Services (DDS) which are charged with the administrative evaluation of claims at the initial and reconsideration claim levels. Reduced funding and personnel only can result in escalating delays in claim processing. Even worse, the only cost savings in the system will be reduced as DDS employees reviewing existing cases for cessation managed a savings to the SSA program of $12 to every $1 spent on these reviews.

As it stands, even with the most hopeful and, arguably, unrealistic objectives, the backlog of disability cases at SSA should increase substantially. This only adds to the undesirable plight of disabled workers who are made to wait without benefits for longer periods of time at a point when the cannot afford to be without funds.

Scott B. Elkind is a Principal with Elkind & Shea, The Disability Benefits Law Firm. His practice focuses exclusively on disability benefits.

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