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W&M Urges Social Security Administration to Address Disability Backlog

September 06, 2017

Today, the Social Security Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), held a hearing on the challenges the Social Security Administration (SSA) faces in determining who is eligible to receive disability benefits.

As Chairman Johnson said at the start of the hearing, too many Americans spend years trying to get an answer from Social Security:

Today, over 1 million people are waiting for a hearing with a Social Security Administrative Law Judge, and on average these folks will wait around 600 days to get that hearing. That’s nearly two years! … While not all of them will qualify for benefits, all of these people deserve an answer in a timely fashion. And for those who don’t qualify for benefits, these long wait times make getting back to work even harder.”

Chairman Johnson also called on the Administration to nominate – and for the Senate to confirm – a Social Security Commissioner to head the SSA:

“In February, Ranking Member Larson and I, along with our colleagues from the Human Resources Subcommittee sent a letter to President Trump asking that he nominate a Commissioner without delay. Social Security needs a Senate-confirmed Commissioner who can lead the agency and focus on providing the service Americans expect and deserve.”

When asked by Chairman Johnson if the SSA has a plan to eliminate the current backlog and prevent a recurrence, Bea Disman – the Acting Chief of Staff for Social Security –  agreed that the wait times were unacceptable, saying that:

“[W]e have to put everything on the table… not just the hiring of human resources, it’s being strategic… if we don’t have a plan that’s strategic, and deals with the core of our problems, just giving us the budget won’t stem the cycle that you’ve just spoken [of].”

Pointing to a new Government Accountability Office (GAO) study, Kathryn Larin – the Director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues at the GAO – explained that the SSA needs to update and modernize the processes, policies, and tools it uses to determine eligibility for disability benefits, many of which have not been updated for decades. Even programs like the SSA’s Compassionate Allowance (CAL) initiative – which was created to expedite claims for beneficiaries with certain severe medical conditions such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) and early-onset Alzheimer’s disease – fall short.

“We found that a third of CAL impairment summaries are more than five years old, even though medical experts we consulted suggested that, given advancements in medical research, summaries should be updated every one to three years.”

When asked if more money would reduce the hearing backlog, Ms. Larin said there are things the SSA can do within its existing budget:

“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 that they are – where they can be more effective and more efficient.”

As a former small business owner and Certified Public Accountant, Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) stated that simply appropriating more funding cannot be the answer for the problems that taxpayers are facing when it comes to the SSA processing people’s claims. Echoing GAO’s concerns, Rep. Renacci said:

“It’s always easy to talk about money. We have to be more efficient. That’s what we do in business and that is what families have to do. We just have to be more efficient.”

At the end of the discussion, Chairman Johnson said:

“Social Security has a lot of work to do. People are waiting too long to get a hearing – and that’s simply unacceptable … Social Security needs to get these wait times under control. The American people deserve no less.