Just how large has the SSA’s disability backlog grown?

Dec 08 2016

Those who have seen both their initial application for disability benefits and their subsequent appeal denied can derive comfort from the fact that there are still several levels of appellate review through which they can seek these much-needed funds.

Indeed, the next level of review enables them to request a hearing before an administrative law judge with the Social Security Administration, who will examine the medical records and other evidence beforehand, question claimants and experts at the proceeding, and render a final decision.

While this seems like a straightforward process that should result in a relatively small case backlog, agency statistics show that this is far from the reality.

In fact, the most recent round of SSA data shows that the nation’s roughly 1,500 administrative law judges are unable to accommodate the spike in requests for appeals hearings, which increased by 40 percent from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2013 alone.

How long is the backlog?

According to the SSA, nearly 1.1 million Americans are currently awaiting disability hearings with the average waiting period for these hearings hovering at around 17 months.

Breaking the numbers down by city, the agency found that the longest wait time is in Buffalo, New York, which has an unbelievable waiting period of 25 months, and the shortest wait time is in Fort Smith, Arkansas, which has a mere eight month waiting period.

Closer to home, Denver has a waiting period of 16 months, while Colorado Springs has a waiting period of 19 months.

Why is the backlog so substantial and the wait times so long?   

Experts indicate that the SSA has seen as many as 11,000 employees depart since fiscal year 2011 and that this number will balloon to 21,000 by fiscal year 2022 owing to retirements. On top of this, the agency has only a small pool of qualified applicants from which they may draw to fill vacancies or new administrative law judge positions.   

Perhaps most problematic of all, however, has been consistent and major budget cuts, which saw the SSA take in almost a billion dollars less each year than was requested in the president’s budget from fiscal year 2011 to fiscal 2013. This loss of federal funds resulted in the agency have to cancel plans to open eight additional hearing offices across the country.

What can be done?

While the obvious answer is restoring funds and hiring more personnel, the agency does have a plan in place that it believes will reduce wait times to a maximum of 270 days and decrease the backlog by 50 percent by fiscal year 2020.

This includes utilizing video hearings, providing analysis and summaries to administrative law judges in hearings involving enormous medical records, and using technology to streamline medical evidence.

Here’s hoping these efforts prove successful …

Please consider speaking with an experienced legal professional if you have concerns about the appeals process or questions about disability benefits in general.