Wading Through Disability Paperwork

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to 11 million individuals, costing $140 billion annually. Its trust fund will become insolvent by 2016, so policymakers have little time to reform the system.

Funding is not the only issue facing the program. A new report from the Washington Post highlights the long list of disability cases waiting to be adjudicated.

Individuals apply to the Social Security Administration (SSA) to claim disability benefits. The file is reviewed by an administrator who makes an initial ruling, with 32 percent of applicants qualifying. Individuals who are denied can appeal the ruling. Eleven percent of appeals are approved for benefits. More than 633,000 individuals are waiting on initial claims with 170,000 waiting on appeal.

An individual’s second appeal goes to one of SSA’s 1,445 judges, whom are tasked with more than 990,000 individuals waiting on appeals. The average wait for a hearing is longer than a year.

The backlog for a hearing before an appeals judge is not new. It started during the Gerald Ford administration and SSA has never caught up. The agency tried various tactics to solve the problem, but nothing seemed to work.

Several years ago, the SSA tried a different approach. The SSA pressured judges to decide 500 cases annually, but that led to a different problem.

The Washington Post explained:

The problem was rooted in a flaw in the system. Judges complain that saying “yes” is a lot easier — and faster — than saying “no.” A negative decision often requires a lengthier write-up, which goes through all the different ailments that might have rendered this person disabled. That means 10 pages of text to prepare for a future appeal. A “yes” decision is rarely appealed. So, they say, it takes less writing.

“So, what happens when you’re pressed for time? You end up paying [approving] cases,” said Thomas Snook, a judge who has worked in the Miami office for 17 years and has been active in the judges union.

Snook is not the only judge that felt the pressure. The Washington Post notes “across the system, judges approved more than half of the cases they saw — up to 62 percent, according to Social Security’s figures. Congressional investigators found 92 judges were even more generous: They had been saying yes to 90 percent of their appeals.”

SSA acknowledged the incentives faced by judges and tweaked their requirements. The Washington Post said:

Today, Social Security officials seem to have backed off their push for faster decisions. They’ve now limited all judges to 720 cases a year and imposed new checks to make sure the “yes” decisions are as well thought-out as the “noes.”

Today, judges approve just 44 percent of cases, a marked decline. At the same time — even as the agency has hired dozens more judges — the backlog has reached its highest level in history. It increased by 13,000 people in the first half of this month alone.

SSDI blames the backlog on less funding over the last few years, last year’s government shutdown, and a large increase in applicants due to the weak economy. 

But with a backlog since 1975, there are much larger issues: SSDI is suffering from decades of missteps.

SSDI is ripe for reform and spending cuts. Good intentions from federal policymakers led to bureaucratic headaches and years of waiting. Slashing requirements and reorganizing the program will allow funds to be dedicated to the truly needy.