Social Security data show pandemic’s toll — and a path forward

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) just released beneficiary death information for 2021. Together with the data for 2020, it is clear the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on the beneficiary population — and it is well past time for the federal government to take additional steps to protect individuals served by SSA’s programs.

SSA recorded nearly 5.6 million beneficiary deaths in the 2020-2021 period, an increase of about 840,000 over the number recorded for the 20182019 period. This represents about a 17.7 percent increase in deaths from one two-year period to the next.

By way of comparison to another data source, the increase in the number of SSA deaths is roughly comparable to the number of deaths due to COVID-19 through the end of 2021 (about 825,000) as reported by the CDC. COVID-19 deaths appear to have been overwhelmingly concentrated in the older age groups that are typically served by Social Security.

Death rates, which measure the number of deaths over a year per 1,000 members of a population at the mid-point of the year, are another way to illustrate the effects of the pandemic on Social Security beneficiaries. Based on SSA data on deaths and number of beneficiaries, the average annual death rate in the two years before COVID-19 was 37.7 deaths per 1,000 beneficiaries. The corresponding rate for the 2020-2021 period was 43.2 deaths per 1,000 beneficiaries, representing a 14.4 percent increase in the death rate.

While the effects of COVID-19 on the elderly are widely known, it is important for policymakers to better understand the effects on disabled individuals. Social Security’s largest group of disability beneficiaries are “disabled workers.” These beneficiaries are referred to as disabled workers because they worked in Social Security-covered employment prior to becoming disabled.

The new data published by SSA indicate the average annual death rate for disabled worker beneficiaries increased by 16.9 percent from the 2018-2019 period to the 2020-2021 period.

Another group of disability beneficiaries is Disabled Adult Child (DAC) beneficiaries. These are adult Social Security beneficiaries who have been disabled since a young age and receive benefits based on their parents’ work in Social Security-covered employment. SSA’s new data indicate that the number of deaths among DACs increased by 27.6 percent following the onset of the pandemic.

In short, SSA’s data for disabled individuals reflects the devastating effects of COVID-19 on individuals with underlying health problems.

SSA’s new data should prompt action on several fronts.

Currently, the CDC recommends a second booster shot in cases in which a person is 50 or older.

Recent press reports indicate federal health officials are considering expanding eligibility for the second booster shot by making it available to adults under age 50. If that turns out not to be feasible, it would be useful for the CDC to determine whether the science at least supports additional booster eligibility for adult Social Security and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability recipients under the age of 50.

The CDC lists many medical conditions for which COVID-19 is especially dangerous, and many SSA disability beneficiaries have these conditions.

Additionally, administration officials have recently expressed concern about the slow take-up of the second booster shot among currently eligible persons. Take-up problems, however, are not limited to just the second booster shot.

The latest numbers from the CDC on vaccines and booster shots for the 50-or-older population are troubling: 16 million people are still not fully vaccinated; 35.9 million vaccinated persons eligible for a first booster shot have not received one, and 42.2 million persons eligible for a second booster have not received it.

Unfortunately, the Biden administration bears much of the responsibility for the disappointing vaccine and booster numbers because it simply does not have a disciplined communication plan. Administration officials rely far too heavily on media interviews or press conferences where officials “think out loud” about aspects of the virus, possible changes in recommendations, or even the political landscape.

The federal government needs to get back to the basics: Communicate in writing using a neutral and factual style; deliver the communications directly to individuals known to be at risk, and repeat communications periodically for effect and to provide updated information.

The populations most at risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19 strongly overlap with the populations served by SSA. Indeed, the overlap is stronger than with the Medicare population because Social Security and SSI also include many children, disabled individuals, and older persons not on Medicare.

The Biden administration should be able to manage the straightforward task of mailing letters to SSA’s beneficiaries stating CDC recommendations on vaccines and boosters and providing factual information on the effects of vaccines and boosters on preventing serious outcomes such hospitalization and death.

If the administration cannot manage that task, it could perhaps fall back on something easier: putting some information on already existing notices that SSA mails out anyway. In early December, SSA will begin mailing out 70 million cost-of-living (COLA) notices to Social Security and SSI beneficiaries. Adding a succinct paragraph to the COLA notice about recent CDC recommendations and providing the CDC vaccination phone line (1-800-232-0233) could help, at least at the margin.

Finally, SSA’s recently released data should serve as a wake-up call to Republican leaders who have been reluctant to work with the Biden administration on providing sufficient funding for activities to mitigate the effects of COVID-19. Relative to the size of the federal budget and the country’s wealth, the amount of funding sought by the administration is very modest. The American people would, no doubt, like to see effective and practical action — across party lines — that blunts the effect of a virus that continues to take a devastating toll on the country’s elderly and disabled citizens.

David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. His views do not reflect the views of any federal agency.

Tags Booster shots communications coronavirus death toll coronavirus pandemic COVID-19 COVID-19 death toll COVID-19 vaccines older Americans pandemic preparedness Pandemic response public health policy Social Security Social Security Administration Social Security Disability Insurance Social Security numbers US covid deaths

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