Over 1 Million People Wait to Hear About Social Security Benefits
By Sean Lally, Staff Writer
In 2014, Mark Miller, a reporter for Reuters, noted that, between 1998 and 2014, the Social Security Administration (SSA) operated below budget for 14 of those years. Though the Obama administration attempted to meet budgetary requirements in 2012 and again in 2015, the SSA has been in continual decline for over a decade. By 2014, 64 field offices had been closed and 500 mobile offices shut down. According to Forbes, those closures constituted the most substantial five-year reduction in the agency’s long history.
Reducing “in-person services,” the SSA sought to move agency-to-public interactions to an online forum. This had terrible effects in places like Gadsden County, Florida, where the “poverty rate is nearly double the state average, and we trail the state averages in education,” according to then-County Commissioner Brenda Holt. “Most of the people here don’t have computers, let alone reliable Internet access,” she continued.
The Current State of Affairs
Flash forward to 2017 and the budget is the same this year as it was in 2011 – a disastrous situation when you consider the fact that there are 6 million more claimants to handle, according to a report by CBS News. This has led to a situation where over 1 million people must wait in line to determine whether they qualify for social security benefits. As it stands, on average, people must wait for nearly two years before hearing back from the SSA. And once they do hear back, they hope to receive an average of $1,037 per month.
In total, the US government pays $197 billion to support disabled people. 10.5 million of those people get benefits through the SSA and another 8 million receive benefits through a related (but separate) program called Supplemental Security Income.
Applying for Benefits
Many people who apply for benefits are denied at first. Those same people must then file for an appeal, which permits them to go before an administrative law judge (ALJ). Most of the claimants who find their way into a courtroom end up receiving benefits. The problem is that the wait is so long that some people die in the meantime. In 2016, there were nearly 7,400 deceased people on the waiting list.
The wait time has steadily increased over the past few years. Five years ago the average wait time was less than a year. In 2015, the wait time increased to 450 days, and this year, the average time spent in the SSA queue is 602 days.
Why are things so bad at the SSA? According to an audit report published in 2015, even though there have been multiple attempts (since 2007) to catch up with backlogged claims, the “backlog had increased significantly.” Four reasons were identified:
- Hearing requests were on the rise
- ALJs were decreasingly productive
- There were fewer staff attorneys to issue decisions regarding benefits
- There were fewer ALJs
In light of these issues, the SSA has indicated that it will hire 500 more judges and 600 more staff, in addition to expanding a program that expedites payments to people with severe ailments (including people with cancer). But it’s questionable whether this plan constitutes a “long-term, multi-year strategy that specifically address[es] the growing pending hearings backlog and worsening timeliness,” as suggested by the 2015 auditors.
The stakes are high, as peoples’ lives are literally on the line. As reported by CBS News, Chris Shuler was unable to make it to his designated hearing because he passed away while waiting to hear back from the SSA.
Shuler, a mechanic, was exposed to chemicals that resulted in severe respiratory issues. The medicine treating those issues ended up taking a toll on his bones, leading to major hip surgery. After having both hips replaced, he died in July 2015 from an infection emanating from his hip. He applied for his benefits in 2012.
In short governmental policy is literally a life and death matter for many people.