The lifetime of the Social Security disability trust fund was recently declared slightly healthier than expected, partly because people are enduring longer wait times for approval.
“What we see that’s been of particular concern is that the trust is benefiting from this massive hearing backlog,” said Mary Dale Walters, senior vice president of Allsup, a company that helps disability claimants obtain benefits.
“They’re not processing the claims as they used to, so it means a lesser impact on the trust fund,” she said.
In July, the Social Security Board of Trustees' annual report estimated that the disability fund would run out in 2028, five years later than the previous year’s estimate. At that point, there will only be enough revenue to cover 93 percent of disability benefits.
One central and positive reason for the added lifespan of the fund was a drop in disability claims, a positive sign of economic growth. But despite fewer claimants, the backlog had continued to grow to a level of 1.1 million people, and wait times have soared.
The wait time for claimants to get a hearing determining their eligibility has risen from an average of 360 days in 2011 to roughly 583 days today, and is expected to continue rising to 605 days by September, according to Allsup's data.
The number of cases decided at the hearing level has dropped 29 percent between 2012 and 2016.
While the Trump administration has recommended designating $90 million of the Social Security Administration’s funding toward reducing the backlog, Walters is skeptical.
“They don’t have the staff, they don’t have a way to really handle that capacity of the baby boomer bubble that came through,” she said.
The Social Security Administration said it was working vigorously to address the backlog, which it attributes to the aging of the baby boomer generation.
"Reducing the wait times for a hearing decision is of utmost importance to the Social Security Administration," the SSA said, citing a plan to introduce technology, better processes, and more employees.
Meanwhile, the administration has called for adding in stricter work requirements for the fund to reduce spending in hopes of cutting back on mandatory spending.
The controversial proposal could help lengthen the trust fund’s life, but critics argue that it would do so at the expense of people who need the benefits.