Number of people on Disability going down

If you listened to some national commentators, you would get the idea that more and more and more people are abusing the system and going on disability, and that the program is out of control. In 1984 the definition of disability expanded and the process became a bit easier. Later, the baby boomer bulge began hitting the ages where people are more likely to be disabled, and thus to be awarded disability benefits. And the number of women in the work force continued rising, creating even more workers who paid into the system and thus were eligible if they became unable to work. The number of people receiving disability therefore increased quite noticeably. But now, evidence requirements are being tightened, the baby boomers are aging out of disability eligibility into retirement eligibility, and the percentage of women in the work force is levelling. Approval rates from judges is also trending down. Since about 2014, the total number of people on disability is going down.

And, Social Security closed its local offices for COVID. Reopening is only now starting to occur.

Abuse of the system and crime will happen in any human endeavor. But our focus here should be on the help that people who have worked most of their adult lives have earned.

Speeding things up

There are a few ways to try to speed things up with Social Security and the long approval process. But what you or I might thing of as “sped up” is not what you should expect. Nonetheless, if you have a terminal illness, like ALS, certain types of cancer, a need for certain transplants, or similar conditions, that are uncurable and likely to cause death, this should help speed up the process. Members of the military are also supposed to get expedited decision-making. Finally, you can ask that Social Security consider you to have a “dire need” and to expedite your case. Of course, everyone believes they have a dire need case, and almost everyone does have a dire need. But to even hope to fall in this category with Social Security, and get in line ahead of the others in need, we must show you are about to lose something like housing (e.g., you have a foreclosure or eviction notice) or medical care (e.g., your COBRA insurance is about to expire).

An Exercise in Frustration

A long experience in frustration. Waiting for Social Security to approve disability benefits can be a painfully long process. According to the Social Security, it takes typically three to five months to get a decision on whether you qualify. And first-time applications for “regular disability” have an initial denial rate of about 65%. So most people going through the process are going to need to appeal to have a chance at getting benefits.

To speed things up, it can help to provide the critical information about your employment history and medical treatment as soon as possible in the process, including names of doctors and hospitals, dates of treatment, and a list of your employers in the past 15 years with job titles, duties, and the requirements that you can no longer meet. If possible, an opinion from your doctor(s) showing the things you can no longer do can help show you can no longer work on a regular, full-time basis. Filing an appeal on the date you get a denial in the mail can also make the process a little shorter.

You can file four levels of appeals – but I believe the most important one is the hearing before a judge. I tell people that is the real decision, where a win or a loss is likely to “stick.” And although winning in front of a judge is definitely not guaranteed, the odds are a little more in your favor than at the first stage, when you submitted your application.

Backlogs and delays

Disability claims are down, for both insured and SSI claims. They are down to the smallest number since at least 2006, with a 13% drop in SSI claims over one year. But despite fewer claims going to the state agencies that review claims, there are longer processing times and growing backlogs. On average people are waiting six to eight weeks longer just for the initial-level decisions. And some have to wait much, much longer. Reconsideration delays are similarly growing. In short, Social Security is taking too long. We can’t even call adjudicators and rely on getting someone to talk to. The phone system appears to depend on callers getting fed up with the wait and hanging up. If that doesn’t work, the telephone system will just hang up on persistent callers.

The real problem is a lack of funding for sufficient staff to handle the calls Social Security gets. They have no choice but to deprive us of telephone service, at least until Congress properly funds them. Even though the number of new claims filed has gone down significantly since the Social Security offices closed their doors, cases are so piled up at the initial and appeal levels that many cases get sidetracked for months. Some even seem to get lost. Social Security adjudicators almost certainly get tired of lawyers repeatedly contacting them about cases, but if you’re one of those lawyers, it’s impossible to tell a case that’s just backlogged from one that’s just disappeared from the process.

Until more funding appears and more staff are hired, the lack of ability to deal with Americans who need Social Security will just keep growing.

Unskilled sit-down jobs

A prominent issue in many, many hearings is whether there are jobs available in any significant number for people who are limited to sedentary, unskilled work. In other words, if you are limited to a mostly sit-down job, and you lack job skills for a sit-down job, are there any unskilled sit-down jobs out there which you are physically and mentally capable of doing? Unskilled, sedentary jobs are disappearing from our economy, but that isn’t stopping Social Security from finding there are such jobs out there for you to do.

At your hearing, Social Security will present a vocational expert (a specialist in jobs in the American economy) to testify that there are jobs available, and we will then hear that person testify as to some of the usual suspects out of the possible 137 such jobs (call-out operator, security monitor, table worker, etc.) There are issues one can raise by questioning the expert on these jobs, based on some more recent Bureau of Labor Statistics publications. There are also lines of attack based on your use of your hands, ability to stay on focused and on task, or ability to sit for long periods. But whatever the specifics of any particular case, for many people applying for benefits there needs to be some evidence, and questioning of the expert, about (1) the limits they face that prevent doing any such jobs and (2) the fact that these supposedly available jobs are disappearing from the economy.