Reforms are needed to fix Social Security Disability Insurance backlog
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The Social Security Disability Insurance program (DI) was created 61 years ago with a worthy goal: to create a backstop to help workers pay bills and make ends meet if an illness or injury leaves them unable to work for a year or more.

Unfortunately, bureaucracy, mismanagement, and a lack of permanent leadership at the Social Security Administration (SSA) have greatly reduced the program’s effectiveness. As a result, the wait time for a hearing decision by an administrative law judge on eligibility for DI benefits has seen a steady, crushing uptick. In fiscal year 2012, the average nationwide wait time for a hearing decision was 353 days. Now? It’s 605 days.

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The average worker applying for DI benefits has paid into the program for 22 years. However, 1.1 million Americans are stuck in this outrageous backlog, with devastating consequences. The person’s health worsens. Their financial situation deteriorates as they draw down their savings or turn to family and friends to help pay bills. Sadly, thousands die waiting – just over 10,000 people died before getting a hearing in 2017. This is unacceptable. 

Congress has provided the SSA $90 million to address the backlog, most of which will be used to hire much-needed judges and support staff. However, even with this infusion of funds, the SSA estimates the backlog won’t return to reasonable levels until 2022.

It’s clear money alone won’t fix the problem. An analyst from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) who recently testified at a congressional hearing agrees: “Is SSA using the resources that they currently have as efficiently and as effectively as they can? We found several instances where we don’t believe they are.” Indeed, there are ways to speed up the decision process that are well within the SSA’s authority. For instance, it’s been decades since the SSA updated many of its processes, policies, and tools for evaluating eligibility.

For those with some of the most severe illnesses, the SSA has the Compassionate Allowance (CAL) initiative, which is designed to reach a decision quicker. Unfortunately, the initiative isn’t functioning as well as it should, either. At that same hearing, the GAO found, among other problems, that people fall through the cracks simply because the SSA’s internal terminology does not match medical descriptions used externally.

Though plenty of changes small and large are needed, the SSA has been without permanent leadership since 2013. At its core, the simple act of nominating and confirming a new SSA Commissioner would take the DI program off autopilot and start to put it on a better path.

While there’s plenty of blame to go around for this crisis, there are also reasonable, affordable, and workable options to help people with legitimate, qualifying disabilities get decisions faster and more efficiently. I look forward to working with my colleagues on the Ways and Means Committee as we continue to explore sensible reforms to improve the DI program and eventually eliminate the backlog.

Walorski represents Indiana's 2nd District and is a member of the Ways and Means Committee.