How to Save Social Security Disability Insurance in 2021
Barring a few lucky owners of private islands, Covid-19 has left almost no one untouched. But the impacts have been especially severe for those with preexisting conditions such as poverty, housing insecurity and disabilities.
Individuals with disabilities already struggled to accommodate their lives to a society that often falters in accommodating theirs. People with mobility impairments were isolated before the quarantines and lockdowns. Those with significant health issues already were at greater risk from contracting illnesses. And stable employment has always been a struggle for people with severe disabilities trying to maintain economic self-sufficiency.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is the primary support available for adults who previously worked but, after serious illness or injury cannot work for 12 months or more. These are earned insurance benefits, paid into by all working Americans at every income level, but the previous administration’s negligence in protecting SSDI paved the path for further destruction of the program down the road.
To protect some of our nation’s most vulnerable, the Social Security Administration (SSA) needs to roll back rules introduced by the former administration that were intended to create more hurdles and make adjusting to a life changed by a disability even harder. At the same time, the SSA needs to address the damage done to the SSDI process by the pandemic and evaluate the best way to modify its policies to make assistance more accessible to those who need it most.
If there was a logical path to disability benefits, the Trump administration found ways to add more twists and turns. If they thought the rules weren’t strict enough, they made them stricter. And if there was medical evidence they didn’t like, they diminished the professionals who provided it. Those with mental illness have been summarily dismissed through bureaucratic effort. Among the most egregious attempts: dismantling Ticket to Work, a component of SSDI that aims to help disability beneficiaries get back to work and leave the benefit program.
The attacks on the program began early. In March 2017, the “treating physician rule” was altered so that the medical opinion of the applicant’s own doctors no longer had standing over the government examiners who briefly reviewed the patient’s medical condition. Controversial rules that would raise even higher barriers for a larger number of applicants with complex and legitimate conditions, such as musculoskeletal injuries and disorders and those with severe mental illness, were rushed through at the end of the term.
Now comes a news report of a whistleblower complaints filed in January 2021, alleging “illegitimate political pressure on Administrative Law Judges to reduce the rate of Social Security disability case approval.”
The SSA under the Biden administration is expected to do better. Coming back from such significant program deterioration will only be possible if protecting SSDI becomes a priority. This is a difficult challenge at a time when the nation faces the most devastating global health crisis in modern history.
Like it did to everything else, the pandemic damaged the SSDI program in 2020. In FY 2020, individuals waited longer to receive a decision at the application and reconsideration level. The closure of SSA offices in March 2020 resulted in the agency completing 272,701 fewer applications, the backlog at this first level rose by 169,803 claims, and the wait time for an initial decision increased by 11 days to 131 days. The pandemic continued to harm people waiting for their first appeal, known as reconsideration. Wait times shot up 13 days to 122 days and the backlog grew to 143,781 pending claims at reconsideration. And while the average wait time for hearings, which is the second appeal, has since lowered from a high of 506 days in 2019, former workers still wait an average of 386 days for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) alone.
These delays of hundreds of days, up to two years for many people, have real human costs. In a recent survey of SSDI applicants and beneficiaries represented by Allsup, a quarter of individuals reported draining their retirement or savings while they waited to receive benefits. Similar percentages said they fell behind on credit card bills and car or other loan payments. One in six had trouble paying their rent or mortgage.
At a big picture level, the real cost: more than 100,000 individuals over a 10-year period died while waiting to receive the results of their SSDI appeals.
The SSA needs to take action to reverse the effects of the pandemic on SSDI. If it doesn’t, the problems from 2020 will affect individuals applying for SSDI in 2021 and beyond. Putting a permanent end to non-compliant and discriminatory practices, such as wet signature policies, that make it more difficult for individuals with representation to apply for benefits and worsen wait times would be a good place to start.
Getting benefits in the hands of the people who desperately need them also requires that the SSA endorse more in-person hearings. Since closing all 164 regional hearing offices in March 2020, the SSA’s capabilities have been strained, with all hearings conducted over video and phone with the exception of dire-need cases. Again, these changes result in erosion of rights and access for people with disabilities, and in-person hearings are vital for ALJs tasked with the responsibility of fully evaluating an individual's disability.
The SSA should consider more on-the-record (OTR) decisions, in which ALJs can make a decision based on new medical evidence available during these long waits with the second appeal when applicants’ conditions worsen. More OTRs would reduce burdens at the hearing level and allow the SSA to return to the in-person hearing model that follows social distancing guidelines.
The growing number of Covid long-haulers is another issue the SSA needs to address now, with more guidance and attention to program access for people with disabilities. The increasing number of individuals who continue to suffer from a variety of long-term effects of Covid-19 for months on end will inevitably acquire life-altering disabilities and apply for SSDI.
With a system that protects so many vulnerable individuals on the line, addressing these changes to SSDI will be of paramount importance in the immediate efforts to fortify the economy and its workforce, especially in this first year of the new administration.
Jim Allsup is the founder, president and CEO of Allsup LLC., a national disability representation organization and Social Security-authorized Employment Network based in Belleville, Ill.