In a letter to leaders of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Max Baucus, D-Mont., of the Senate Budget Committee urged appropriators to follow a recommendation in the fiscal 2008 budget resolution. The blueprint suggests that the additional $430 million is necessary to meet SSA's administrative needs.
"Increased funding will enable the SSA to reduce the long delays applicants must endure before they receive their Social Security disability benefits," the lawmakers wrote.
Several lawmakers have cited concern with SSA's staffing levels, particularly for processing applications to the disability programs. Waiting times for approval can exceed three years in some cases, lawmakers noted in the letter. SSA acknowledges that about half of these waiting times result from huge backlogs of initial claims and requests for hearings before administrative law judges.
By the end of fiscal 2007, the pileup of initial claims is expected to reach 577,000, and the number of cases pending for appeals hearings is expected to be 752,000, according to SSA.
Last week, the House Appropriations subcommittee charged with handling SSA approved a $100 million increase beyond Bush's request for the agency's administrative budget, $330 million less than that sought in the budget resolution. According to the American Federation of Government Employees and the Federal Managers Association, the subcommittee was forced to allocate additional funding to other agencies under its jurisdiction, with much of the funding apportioned to the Health and Human Services Department's pandemic flu preparedness initiatives.
"The $100 million is going to do very little to assist us," said Witold Skwierczynski, president of the AFGE national council of SSA field operations locals. "You have to have enough people to dig into the backlog and to reduce the processing time for a hearing."
The Bush administration's fiscal 2008 budget request proposed $9.6 billion for SSA administrative expenses, $843 million less than former SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart's request. Barnhart calculated the request in order to best deal with the agency's backlog challenges, said Darryl Perkinson, FMA's president.
Skwierczynski said SSA also faces a number of new challenges, largely because Congress has vastly increased the agency's responsibilities. SSA is now required to evaluate Medicare beneficiaries' incomes to determine whether Part B premiums must be increased pursuant to current law. The agency also is responsible for implementing a subsidy program to help individuals with low incomes obtain Medicare Part D coverage, and is charged with implementing some aspects of a recent intelligence reform law.
"This is an additional workload we have to absorb," Skwierczynski said. "As the agency doesn't get a sufficient amount of money to do the things Congress wants us to do, people are getting upset that they can't get through to us. We're getting a lot of criticism, and unfortunately we're not getting relief in the budget process."
At a hearing in February, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue touted the accomplishments and increase in productivity in the last five years. But he also acknowledged that SSA could have accomplished much more had it received the president's budget request over the last two years. "In the last five years, reductions in the president's budget request have totaled $720 million, equivalent to approximately 8,000 work years," Astrue said.
Skwierczynski said AFGE is hoping the Senate will follow the Budget Committee's recommendation and provide the additional $430 million to SSA. "We're hoping that if that happens," he said, "we can convince the House in conference committee to up their amount."