Out From Under

With a spike in disability benefit claims, SSA is trying to keep its head above water.

The last thing the Social Security Administration needed last fall was a development to make its already staggering backlog of disability claims worse. Then came the recession, adding fuel to a fire SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue has been working feverishly to put out.

According to Astrue and other experts on disability claims, the faltering economy is causing an increase in applications of between 15 percent and 25 percent. SSA originally anticipated receiving 2.6 million to 2.65 million applications for disability benefits in fiscal 2009, but upped its prediction to 3 million and another 3 million for 2010. Recently, the agency adjusted its estimates again, increasing the projection for 2010 to 3.3 million applications.

"Everybody in the disability world knows-it's very predictable-that when the economy suffers a downturn, you'll see an uptick in new disability applications with Social Security and employer-provided disability claims," says Jim Allsup, president and chief executive officer of Belleville, Ill.-based Allsup Inc., a disability claims services provider.

Both Allsup and Astrue say increases in disability claims during recessions are linked to unemployment. Many people with disabilities work if they're able to find a position, but if they're laid off, then they might have a harder time than others finding another job. "They were preventing the filing by continuing to work despite the problem," Allsup says. "Now the job's done, gone. They can't find a replacement, so, presto, you end up with a disability claim you wouldn't have otherwise had."

Astrue says the agency has been making inroads, reducing processing times by 4 percent each of the past two years. The recession, however, has reversed the progress on the backlog of cases. At the beginning of 2009, SSA had 550,000 cases pending at the state level. The state-run SSA-funded Disability Determination Services do much of the initial processing and eligibility determination for applicants. The number of claims pending at the state level, which does not account for applications at other stages of adjudication, is now up to 725,000.

And it's rising.

Lawmakers gave SSA $500 million to address the backlog as part of the 2009 Recovery Act, but the agency faces challenges in spending it. Astrue says he planned to use the stimulus money to staff up the Disability Determination Services. With many states facing financial disasters, however, he has had to fight to keep states from furloughing DDS employees and from angling to spend SSA's stimulus money in other ways.

"We've been stymied at the state level," Astrue says. "There's this callous 'Kumbaya' attitude that if there's going to be pain, everyone has to suffer. For me, it's beyond comprehension that you would make a civil service suffer unnecessarily and make claimants in desperate need of assistance wait much longer than they otherwise would."

Astrue says SSA has received strong support from the Obama administration. Vice President Joe Biden intervened in the state power struggle, for instance, by writing a letter to Pennsylvania Gov. Edward Rendell expressing concern about hiring restrictions and furloughs for DDS employees.

Despite the pre-existing challenges and those caused by the recession, Astrue is optimistic he can eliminate the disability claims backlog by 2013 if Congress continues to fund the agency properly. President Obama's fiscal 2010 budget request for SSA was $11.6 billion, a 10 percent increase over fiscal 2009. Astrue says having that budget in place by the start of the fiscal year would be a tremendous benefit to the agency.

"There's a possibility-I don't even know the last time this happened-that we could have an appropriation by the start of the fiscal year," he says. "For planning purposes, being able to plan for the full fiscal year is enormous; we should be able to deliver much more use to the public."

Before the August congressional recess, the full House and the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved the president's budget request for SSA.

Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association, cautions a one-time 10 percent budget increase wouldn't be enough to sustain progress. "It needs to stay at that pace for three to five years. We need to grow off the budget each year," she says. "That's the only way we'll be able to move forward with reducing the backlog."

Appropriators are aware of SSA's pressing needs, given the administration's support, media attention and large piles of casework requests in their district offices, Klement says. "After 10 years of under-funding, lawmakers are finally realizing there is a problem that can easily be fixed if you just provide more funding."

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