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More funding urged for SSA disability processing

Appropriators went beyond President Bush’s request but still fell short of the sum needed to make a dent in backlog of cases, group says.

The levels of fiscal 2008 funding approved by appropriators so far would perpetuate a backlog of disability cases at the Social Security Administration, according to a group representing federal managers.

The Federal Managers Association, which represents managers and supervisors in the SSA's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, said earlier this week that even though both House and Senate appropriators have exceeded President Bush's request of $9.6 billion for SSA administrative expenses, the levels they have passed remain insufficient to staff the agency properly.

The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday backed an addition of $100 million to Bush's request during its markup of the Labor-Health and Human Services spending bill, bringing the total for the administrative funds to $9.7 billion. Senate appropriators last month were just slightly more generous.

FMA would like to see lawmakers bring the total allocation up to the $10.1 billion approved in the fiscal 2008 budget blueprint. The group noted that even this is less than the $10.4 billion former SSA Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart proposed as part of the agency's budget request.

But the $10.1 billion "would allow the agency to tackle the growing disability claims backlog," the association said.

In a summary of the bill, the House Appropriations Committee said the $100 million it added to the president's proposal should improve the agency's ability to handle claims.

"The increase will help to improve processing times for initial disability claims and hearings, which have increased in recent years," the summary stated. "It will also help to reduce the backlog of disability cases, as well as allow SSA to process additional disability reviews and [Supplemental Security Income] eligibility determinations.

Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the managers association, disagreed that the $100 million would reduce the backlog. "It's going to slow the growth of the backlog, but it will by no means allow them to work on [it]," she said.

The funds will allow the SSA to replace only 1,000 of the 4,000 employees lost in the last three years, she said.

FMA National President Darryl Perkinson issued a letter to the House Appropriations Committee last month saying the president's recommendation fell far short of the funding needed by SSA to more quickly process disability claims. "More staff will allow SSA to deliver its services to the American people in the best possible manner," Perkinson wrote. "However, this cannot be done without adequate funding from Congress . . . . We, at FMA, believe that the level of funding proposed by the appropriations committees falls far too short of the mark for SSA to serve its customers efficiently."

Klement said FMA would like an amendment offered on the House floor to increase SSA funding, but acknowledged that was a long shot.

President Bush has threatened to veto appropriations bills that exceed his overall recommendations for discretionary spending. The Labor-HHS and the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development appropriations bills alone exceed the president's recommendations by $16 billion.

Acknowledging the likelihood that SSA will not get the $10.1 billion recommended by the Senate Budget Committee, Klement said the agency will go ahead with business as usual and attempt to keep the backlog from snowballing.

"They're going to continue doing what they've been doing for the last six years, because they have been underfunded for six years," she said. "They know how to deal with the problem; they hire the staff they can and handle it the best they can."