By Jim Allsup
The proposed reopening of the Social Security Administration’s offices and phased re-entry of its employees in late March are long overdue. After being effectively closed for the better part of two years, it’s high time for the agency to get back to serving the public, especially the men, women, and children with severe disabilities who rely on them to process their Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits efficiently.
The SSA has been overly cautious with its plan that affects not just the public, but also its almost 60,000 employees. However, despite scientific and medical advancements that have mitigated much of the COVID-19 public health threat, the SSA has been slow to resume pre-pandemic in-person activity. There is a visible contrast between the SSA and the efforts of other governmental agencies to safely and sensibly resume business as usual, to the extent possible. Instead, the SSA has experienced two years of continuous service decline and now faces an even greater hurdle to achieving pre-pandemic efficiency—if that’s even possible.
SSA field office closures have resulted in a significant backlog in processing applications and reconsideration appeals. The backlog of pending claims needing a decision has risen by 25%, from 593,944 to nearly 740,000 by the end of FY 2021. Processing times for those applications have also increased, taking 25 days longer, on average, for the SSA to process in 2021 than it did in 2020.
This delay in benefits processing has drastic real-world effects. Incoming applications declined nearly 16%, and phone calls increased by millions per month on average. Nearly 110,000 people have died while awaiting a benefits decision over the last decade. Thousands more individuals have been forced to declare personal bankruptcy. Even those fortunate enough to stave off complete monetary ruin have still had to contend with undue financial stress, as well as a decline in their health condition and continued inability to work.
While SSA offices reopening is an obvious first step toward getting deserving Americans their rightful disability benefits, the damage is so severe that reopening alone will not be enough. Thoughtful, proactive measures must be put into place with customers with disabilities in mind, and these measures must go into effect as soon as offices are open. To serve applicants with disabilities fairly and efficiently, the SSA should take the following steps:
Focus on reducing wait times. The agency should reestablish policies and strategies that reduce wait times for each level of the SSDI application and appeal process. Potential strategies could include eliminating the reconsideration level, which adds a hurdle to the appeals process, and reinstating a formal program, or interim program, for on-the-record (OTR) decisions, which can more quickly provide applicants with an answer.
Prioritize COVID long-haulers. Individuals with disabilities impacted or exacerbated by so-called “long COVID” should be flagged, and their cases given priority. There is a growing number of applicants reporting long-term COVID-19 complications, and their needs must be met quickly.
Partner with third-party providers. The workload facing the SSA’s office workers, even when offices are fully operational, will be daunting. Telling disability applicants about the help of third-party representatives (in the same way the IRS works with tax preparers) can make a significant difference. This step ensures people with disabilities get help to accurately complete their claims, directly file through online means that representatives have available, assist with the backlog, and support claims review and pre-eligibility assessment. This will allow the in-office staff to focus their efforts on making disability determinations.
While no one should fault this or other federal agencies for their concern for the health and well-being of their own workers, the shuttering of 1,230 Social Security field offices and 164 hearing offices has had heart-rending consequences for SSDI applicants throughout the country. Politicians and representatives nationwide have heard from scores of their constituents who have been adversely impacted by these office closures.
The SSA’s planned re-opening is a sign of progress and presents a glimmer of hope for those applicants and their families left to fend for themselves over the last two years. But unless and until the SSA implements the above measures and more to undo the months-long disruption of review processes and administration of SSDI benefits, and starts to prioritize service for its disabled and COVID-impacted customers, the negative impact on those most in need of their services is bound to continue, if not worsen.