The Social Security Administration (SSA) for decades has been notoriously slow in its processing of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) applications. Ill and injured claimants who cannot work may languish for months and even years without cash assistance, placing them in perilous financial conditions.
Sadly, some cannot win this waiting game, losing homes or even passing away before SSA decides their claims or appeals. Most initial applications are denied, kicking off a long journey through levels of further review or appeal.
For people applying now or with applications already pending, working with an experienced and knowledgeable attorney can help to speed up the process. As we explained the last time we addressed this issue, the application is long and detailed, plus the agency may send claimants to doctors for further evaluation, pushing out the decision even farther.
Legal counsel can assist the client to create a robust, complete record of medical and other evidence before the agency. This may speed up the process because the SSA will likely need to order fewer medical exams to assess impairments or take other actions to create a thorough record of disability.
The lawyer can communicate with the SSA on behalf of their client and may spot problems with the application that can be proactively remedied rather than wait months for the agency to discover them. Counsel can help their client stay on top of information requests, appointments and deadlines. It can be overwhelming for a disabled client to manage on their own.
Over time, Congress has not adequately funded the SSA resulting in low pay and employee turnover, and insufficient resources to timely process applications. Employees must review voluminous medical records and follow detailed administrative procedures. SSA is responsible for administering the initial application plus three additional levels of review and appeal – reconsideration, a hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ) and an appeal to the Appeals Counsel. (Appeal to federal court is the next step.)
The initial application and often reconsideration are decided in each state by a state agency called the disability determination service (DDS), which in Indiana is the Disability Determination Bureau (DDB). Indiana DDB works in consultation with the 26 SSA offices across the state. Unfortunately, DDSs also face wage and recruitment issues.
Why are things dire right now?
The SSA reports that in Dec. 2022, the average number of days to decision on the initial application was 210 days as compared to 112 days in Dec. 2017. The Washington Post published a piece of investigative journalism on Dec. 8, 2022, that has caught the attention of those on both sides of the aisle in government.
Reasons for the current backlog noted in the article:
- COVID-19 caused SSA and DDS office closures with clumsy transition to at-home work
- Massive employee exit from SSA and DDSs because of low wages, soaring workloads, crushing pressure and sinking morale, followed by difficulty with recruiting new workers and long training periods
- Disability examiners must perform complex tasks for insufficient pay
- SSA office closures during the pandemic leaving claimant without online or phone resources isolated from getting information on their claims
- Applicants got less medical attention during COVID-19, making current assessment harder
- Fewer available consultative medical professionals to contract with SSA or DDSs
- Fewer consultative medical examinations during COVID-19 due to closed medical resources
- Some state employee furloughs during the pandemic
- And others
We will keep readers informed about these issues as they evolve. In the meantime, do not hesitate to consult with an attorney to answer questions and assist with your claim.
(The Washington Post investigative piece is available on Westlaw at 2022 WLNR 39581566.)