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Lawmakers decry massive backlog in Social Security disability claims

A Washington Post report detailed how the backlog has led to lengthy delays for Americans seeking benefits

The U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Al Drago/Bloomberg News)

Top House and Senate Democrats on Tuesday called for a drastic boost in funding for the Social Security Administration to increase staffing, improve technology and expand other investments as the agency confronts a massive backlog in claims for disability benefits.

The top Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, meanwhile, called for “serious bipartisan reforms” to address poor customer service and the explosion in pending claims at the agency.

The calls for action from Capitol Hill follow a Washington Post report Monday on a crisis at the little-known state offices that process applications for Social Security’s two disability programs.

“Lawmakers in both parties are getting an earful at home about the backlog and poor customer service at the Social Security Administration, and are demanding answers on this and the disarray in its workforce,” Rep. Kevin Brady (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, said in a statement. “The workforce issues seem to be getting worse, which is terrible news for seniors and the disabled. At the end of the day, the outdated disability process continues to struggle and needs serious bipartisan reforms.”

The White House also called on Wednesday for lawmakers to approve President Biden’s budget, which includes a funding increase "to improve service for Americans on Social Security.”

“The Administration has prioritized improving the Government’s service delivery to its customers ... including at the Social Security Administration," a White House spokesman said.

The state Social Security offices — located in 50 state capitals, the District and Puerto Rico — have reached a breaking point as workloads have piled up during the coronavirus pandemic, and low-paid employees who review claims have quit in droves, fleeing jobs that have become untenable. More than 1 million disabled Americans, many of them poor and elderly, are waiting months or years to hear whether they will receive benefits. Processing times have doubled in some states and almost tripled in others.

“These benefits are vital to people with severe disabilities, helping them to live with dignity and pay for food, housing, transportation, heating and cooling, out-of-pocket medical bills, and other basics,” said a joint statement from Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, and Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), who leads the subcommittee on worker and family support, citing The Post report.

“Any delays in access can be incredibly harmful to severely disabled individuals living on the edge,” the lawmakers said.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) decried the “unacceptable” delays facing disabled Americans “to even find out if they are eligible for benefits.” He pledged to improve service throughout the Social Security system with a push to strengthen the agency’s workforce, simplify complicated applications for benefits and “give Social Security the resources it needs to help Americans receive their earned benefits in a timely manner.”

The push for a bigger budget comes as House and Senate negotiators race to agree on a bipartisan deal to fund the federal government for the rest of the fiscal year before a temporary budget expires Dec. 16. Social Security officials, frustrated that Congress approved less than President Biden had requested for the last fiscal year, have raised alarms about their financial struggles ever since — citing more than two decades of budget reductions as the number of retiring baby boomers has grown.

As the current stopgap plan was being negotiated in September, Social Security took the unusual step of asking Congress for an extra $800 million, citing “delays in services and long waits for disability decisions.” Lawmakers approved half the request, which translated to about $85 million through Dec. 16.

Agency leaders renewed their call for more funding before Thanksgiving with a missive on the Social Security website intended for advocates who work with the agency, policymakers and lawmakers. “We Want to Provide You with Timely, High Quality and Accurate Service,” read the headline of a Nov. 17 post by Jeff Nesbit, deputy commissioner for communications.

“We have faced years of underfunding,” Nesbit wrote, citing a 7 percent drop of 4,000 employees across the agency since before the pandemic. “We are also experiencing historically high levels of employees leaving the agency, because employees are carrying unreasonable workloads given the staffing shortage. As we lose employees, our service further deteriorates.”

An additional 3,950 disability examiners working in state offices quit or retired during this period, Social Security officials said.

Nesbit also wrote that disabled claimants “are waiting an unacceptable average of over six months for a decision on an initial disability claim and over 30 minutes to speak to a representative on our National 800 Number.” Without additional funding in fiscal 2023, Social Security would have to freeze hiring, cut overtime and cut funding for its technology investments, he wrote.

It is unlikely that even if Congress agrees to legislation known as an omnibus spending bill before the end of the year, Social Security would receive the full $14.8 billion that President Biden requested for fiscal 2023 — a proposed $1.4 billion boost over current funding. House and Senate appropriation committees approved an increase of about $1 billion in July.

It’s unclear, though, if Congress will agree on enough spending priorities to pass a new budget before the end of the year. That would leave Social Security and the rest of the government with a full-year stopgap measure at current funding levels. The White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is preparing for such a scenario with proposals for additional funding for several agencies over current levels. In Social Security’s case, the request would grant the full $800 million boost that the administration sought in the fall, according to an OMB document circulating Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

Without the extra money, “additional demands on [Social Security] services would result in significantly longer wait times and reduced service levels to the public,” the document says.

Kathleen Romig, director of Social Security and disability policy at the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, described the dysfunction highlighted in The Post’s report as both a short- and long-term challenge that can be only partly solved by more funding.

“If Congress does not act, the very serious problems at the disability determination service offices would worsen substantially,” Romig said. “It would be a disaster for applicants for benefits.”

She described, however, a “very complicated problem with many dimensions” that Social Security must address in the long term.

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