Backlog of Social Security disability claims likely to grow

While Congress approved additional funding to help the Social Security Administration address a growing backlog of disability claims amid budget battles, experts say other steps are needed.

SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review is struggling to tackle nearly 750,000 pending requests for disability hearings, and the agency as a whole is expecting the number of workers receiving retirement benefits to increase by 13 million over the next 10 years. More than 40 organizations petitioned House appropriators to provide SSA the funds to deal with its growing burden.

"Citizens will be contacting SSA at a time when the agency is closing an increasing number of its field offices because it does not have the funding necessary to keep the offices adequately staffed and the doors open," the petition stated.

Congress eventually gave SSA an additional $150 million over the president's requested $9.6 billion to deal with administrative expenses. This increase, a feat in this year's particularly contentious appropriations environment, will help the agency slow the backlog, but experts say it won't fix the problem overnight.

"One year of an increase in funding over the president's budget request after seven years of underfunding is not going to stop the problem," said Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association. "But you can do what you can do with $150 million. It's not going to be perfect, but it will help."

Jim Allsup, a disability claims expert and president of Allsup Inc., a company on Belleville, Ill., that helps people file claims, is urging SSA to give applicants options. Allsup said his company has seen a 168 percent increase in business during the last five years as a result of the exploding backlog.

"This is a complicated process and individuals who apply for benefits without representation are more likely to have their claims denied," said Jim Allsup, president and chief executive officer.

On Wednesday, the company issued a list of the top 10 tips for claims applicants to break through the backlog; the list included everything from checking eligibility to preparing an accurate and full medical record to meeting deadlines.

"The tips were exactly what we would recommend for people filing for benefits and, in essence, what the Social Security Administration would recommend," Klement said. She noted that one of the primary reasons applicants encounter long wait times is they have submitted outdated medical records and the SSA has to wait for more complete records.

Klement says the backlog cannot be eliminated entirely, and the goal is to minimize it so applicants do not wait hundreds of days for a ruling. Current wait times for an applicant filing an appeal after an initial claim has been denied average 524 days.

"Any dent you can make in that is a success," she noted.

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