A quandary Congress and Social Security must tackle

Whoever assumes control of the Social Security Administration under President Trump will have a big job. The next commissioner will have many challenges, foremost of which is ensuring the financial stability and service levels of the entire Social Security system. But that’s not all.

Another, lesser known crisis is brewing within Social Security. This one involves the disability program that is supposed to help millions of Americans but is actually ruining lives. Applicants to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program are unable to work because of illness or injury. They already paid for the insurance through their payroll or FICA tax contributions when they were still working. Yet many of these same individuals are routinely forced to wait years to learn if they will get the benefits at all.

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The Social Security Administration says reducing this backlog to acceptable levels will take five years, until 2022, extending a nightmarish situation. This is unacceptable.

One cause of this tragedy is lack of permanent leadership at the top of the Social Security Administration, a problem that only the president and Congress can solve. The agency hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed leader since 2013 when the term of Michael J. Astrue ended. Many other top executives there are also “acting” rather than confirmed.

Without a firm, steady strategic vision, the program’s problems have been allowed to fester. For example, for an initial claim, applicants must wait an average of 110 days. More than two thirds of those claims must be reconsidered and that additional wait time is up to an average of 103 days. After that phase, in which only 12 percent of applicants are granted benefits, the wait time balloons to an unbelievable average of 583 days. This is expected to increase to 605 days by the end of September.

Even then, fewer than half of applicants receive the benefits they have already paid for and in most cases, desperately need. The Social Security Administration has estimated that 7,400 people have died waiting for a disability hearing. The number of people waiting has increased 58 percent (to 1.1 million from 705,000) since fiscal year 2010.

How did this situation reach such a desperate state? Several economic and political forces have placed pressure on the program in recent years. Lawmakers used examples of high-profile fraud cases to throw up more barriers to receiving benefits and to add complexity to the claims process. These include requiring unnecessary medical records, placing additional steps in the review process and choosing to ignore the opinions of an applicant’s personal physician.

In addition, ever tightening budgets and complex hiring rules have resulted in a lack of qualified judges and staff to examine claims. The lack of thoughtful, strategic leadership at the Social Security Administration has brought the disability program to the breaking point.

Former Social Security Commissioner Astrue worked to reduce an earlier backlog and was largely successful by 2012. But after his term ended and no permanent replacement was named, the agency’s budget and staffing levels declined and the backlog started to tick up again. 

The president and Congress can reverse this dangerous trend. But first, the Social Security Administration needs to share its plan to eliminate the backlog with lawmakers and the American people. Part of that proposed upgrade should include the hiring of temporary staff, including retired judges and additional attorneys to help review cases, conduct hearings and draft decisions. The plan needs to demonstrate that the agency can change its approach and modernize how claims are reviewed.

The Trump administration should also consider increasing the use of so-called on-the-record decisions that do not require in-person hearings. Quality decisions of this kind can provide applicants with more certainty earlier in the process. What’s more, the consideration of claims should be based on length of time waiting for a hearing. In addition, the sickest individuals should be moved up the waiting list. 

No matter what, these problems will not solve themselves and permanent leadership is needed. A Senate-confirmed Social Security commissioner would be better positioned to fight to ensure the efficient processing of deserving claimants regardless what the latest news about the disability program might be. 

The Trump administration, working with lawmakers, should focus on fixing this important program rather than assuming that every former worker who applies for disability coverage really could have continued to work if he or she tried hard enough. Real lives are on the line. Whoever takes over the Social Security Administration has a lot of work to do.

Jim Allsup is chairman and CEO of Allsup Inc., a national disability representation organization and Social Security authorized Employment Network based in Belleville, Ill.


The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.