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Nationwide SSDI Awards Hit 20 Year Low In December

2020 January 20
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by Steve Perrigo

The number of nationwide Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards issued in December 2019 totaled 39,356, the lowest monthly amount reported since December 1999.

The Agency has averaged approximately 62,000 awards per month in 2018-2019, down considerably from 2010-11 when monthly awards were approximately 87,000 per month.

Factors in the awards decline include fewer applications due to the improved economy, lower award rates, reduced staffing, and limited overtime due to budget constraints.

Initial applications submitted to state Disability Determination Services (DDS) fell to 87,859, the second fewest monthly total since January 2001.

Report: SSA Moves To Tighten Eligibility For SSDI

2020 January 15
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by Steve Perrigo

The Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 10, 2020, that the Trump administration and Social Security Administration (SSA) are developing a plan to change a number of rules the agency uses in determining eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). The rule changes will affect older applicants in particular.

The proposal, according the media report, would reduce the role of age, education and work experience which typically are used in the evaluation process for former workers filing SSDI claims. For example, under current rules the agency adjusts some criteria for those age 50 and older, citing the challenges in one’s ability to adapt to different work or learn new skills as they age. The new plan would increase this threshold to age 55.

SSA data show 76.7% of beneficiaries are age 50 and over, while 23.3% are 49 and younger.

The new rules also would update the role of occupational skills and criteria used by the Social Security Administration to determine eligibility, incorporating new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The proposal, which has been attempted but, failed during previous administrations, is an effort to adapt for changes in worker demographics and jobs since the current criteria was put into place decades ago. Fewer people are working in jobs requiring extensive physical labor, more are in service industries and technology has changed how many work tasks are accomplished.

According to the report, SSA plans to release the proposed rule changes in mid-2020, at which point the public will have 60 days to comment.

Separately, the SSA has indicated it wants to eliminate an SSDI claimant’s inability to speak English as a factor in adapting to other work when determining eligibility for benefits. Another rule also has been proposed that would require earlier Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs) of some applicants’ SSDI benefit once they’ve been approved and are receiving benefit income.

The Social Security Administration has not released information on the age, education and work experience provisions. Click here for more about the proposal to increase the frequency of CDRs, and also find online the rule regarding the inability to speak English.

SSA Will Continue To Allow Claimants to Opt-Out Of Video Hearings

2019 December 17
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has stepped back from a proposed rule that would have severely limited disability claimants’ option to participate in an in-person hearing before an administrative law judge (ALJ). The final rule, “Setting the Manner for the Appearance of Parties and Witnesses at a Hearing,” will be published in the Federal Register Dec. 18, 2019, and indicates that claimants may continue to choose to opt out of video teleconference (VTC) hearings.

When proposed in November 2018, the rule drew attention for provisions that indicated the federal agency was eliminating altogether the option to appeal a reconsideration denial in person. Historically, hearings before ALJs were held in-person. However, the Social Security disability backlog and technology initiatives have accelerated the use of video hearings in recent years. The agency estimates that about 30% of its hearings are currently conducted via video.

For the full rule, visit FederalRegister.gov.

Continuing Resolution Extends SSA Funding Through Dec. 20

2019 November 22
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by Steve Perrigo

President Trump signed a second short-term continuing resolution (CR) today that will avoid a government shutdown and keep federal agencies, including the Social Security Administration, open until Dec. 20. The original CR, set to expire at midnight tonight, was needed to avoid a federal government shutdown on Oct. 1, the start of the fiscal year (FY 2020), as lawmakers had not passed a budget on time.

This second CR, signed today, will allow agencies to continue operating at reduced FY 2019 funding levels until a final budget deal is reached. Until that deal is reached, agencies face hiring and overtime restrictions that impact production and customer service.

 

Pending SSDI Hearings Decline 33 Percent In Fiscal Year 2019

2019 October 17
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration is reporting continued improvement in reducing the number of claimants waiting for a disability hearing decision.

The agency finished fiscal year (FY) 2019, ending September 30, 2019, with 575,421 hearings pending, below the agency’s target of 591,000. In comparison, there were 858,383 claimants waiting for a hearing decision at the end of FY2018, and more than one million at the end of FY2017.

In addition, the national average hearing wait time dropped by 89 days to 506 days in FY 2019, down from 595 days in FY2018, and 605 days in FY2017.

The reduction was in part affected by reinstatement of the Reconsideration appeal level in eight states in 2019, which delays a denied claimant’s progress to the hearing level.

The SSA stated in its latest performance plan that it will eliminate the hearing backlog and reduce the wait time below 270 in FY2021.

SSA: Beneficiaries To Receive 1.6% COLA For 2020

2019 October 10
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) today announced the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for 2020 will be 1.6%. This is lower than two previous years when beneficiaries received an increase of 2.8% in 2018 and 2.0% in 2017. Click here for full list of COLAs since 1975.

The average monthly SSDI benefit will increase to $1,258 from $1,238, an increase of $20 (or $240 annually), according to SSA. The COLA is based on third-quarter results reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W).

The amount of earnings subject to Social Security tax, or taxable maximum, will increase to $137,700 from $132,900 in 2020. The SSA outlines additional details in its Fact Sheet.

  • Substantial gainful activity (SGA). The monthly threshold for non-blind individuals will increase to $1,260 per month from $1,220 per month. For blind workers, it will increase to $2,110 per month from $2,040 per month.
  • Quarter of coverage. Earnings required for a quarter of coverage increases to $1,410 from $1,360. This refers to the amount of earnings required, per quarter, to receive insured status for retirement and disability benefits.
  • Trial Work Period (TWP). The monthly TWP threshold increases to $910 per month from $880 per month.

The increase takes effect in January 2020 for more than 68 million Social Security beneficiaries.

Partial Hiring Freeze In Effect At SSA

2019 August 14
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by Steve Perrigo

Effective July 31, 2019, the Social Security Administration has implemented a full hiring freeze for “all Headquarter components and their respective regional offices”.

In a memo to senior SSA staff, new Commissioner Andrew Saul announced the hiring freeze to “ensure that the agency’s resources are directed to improving public service.” Exempt agency components include local field offices (FO), processing (payment) centers (PC), teleservice centers (TSC), and state Disability Determination Services (DDS).

New appointments for administrative law judges (ALJs), senior administrative law judges, and administrative appeals judges are also prohibited. In early July, it was widely reported the agency significantly reduced overtime for employees at the Office of Hearing Operations (OHO) who write hearing level decisions.

No timeline was given for when the freeze will be lifted.

In April, SSA offered “early out” retirement to eligible employees in an effort to reduce the size of its workforce. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report stated 27.3% of SSA employees were eligible to retire in Fiscal Year (FY) 2017.

 

 

 

Disability Hearings Backlog and Wait Times Steadily Decline

2019 July 9
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by Steve Perrigo

Month by month, the Social Security Administration continues to report improvements with its disability hearing backlog—already achieving one of its targets for the end of fiscal year (FY) on Sept. 30, 2019.

From October through May, the hearing backlog declined by 175,000 claims, or nearly 21%, from 840,784 claims to 665,744 claims, according to SSA data. Now just a few months from the end of FY 2019, the SSA is on pace to reach its goal of fewer than 591,000 hearings pending.

In addition, the national average wait time at the hearing level has dropped by 50 days—from 541 to 491 days, since Oct. 1, 2018. This is already below their Sept. 30, 2019 target of 515 days.

In its latest performance plan, SSA stated it would eliminate the hearing backlog in FY 2021.

 

 

Senate Confirms Andrew Saul as Commissioner of Social Security

2019 June 5
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by Steve Perrigo

For the first time in more than six years, the Social Security Administration officially has a U.S. Senate-confirmed Commissioner — Andrew Saul — to lead the large, independent federal agency.

Today’s vote passed 77-16 confirming Trump-nominee Saul for a six-year term to expire Jan. 19, 2025. In a hearing held last year, Saul indicated plans to review the SSA’s use of technology and a focus on modernization. Since former SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue stepped down Feb. 13, 2013, the agency has been operating under acting-leadership by SSA officials. Nancy Berryhill, previously serving as deputy commissioner for SSA Operations, has been functioning as acting commissioner since 2017.

As previously shared here, Saul is a partner with Saul Partners, LP, and previously held roles in public service as chairman of the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board and vice chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Currently, he is a commissioner for Westchester County, New York.

Saul’s prior business roles include board chairman for Cache Inc., president of Brooks Fashion Stores Inc., and president of BR Investors. Additional community involvement includes serving as vice chairman of the Mt. Sinai Health System in New York City, vice chairman of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai, and as trustee for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Saul graduated from the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania in 1968, at the same time as President Trump, and serves on its board of overseers.

The SSA has a budget of more than $12 billion and about 61,000 employees nationwide, assisting the general public with retirement, survivors, and disability programs, among a range of other services related to the U.S. workers’ earnings and social insurance provisions, as mandated by federal law.

Since 2013, the agency has experienced significant changes in how it provides services to the public, including additional uses of technology, closing dozens of field offices, and implementing operational, regulatory, and administrative changes.

A comparison shows:

 

SSA Trustees: Disability Trust Fund Solvency Gains 20 Years

2019 April 22
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by Steve Perrigo

The long-term financial status of the Social Security Trust Funds improved in 2018, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees annual report released today.

The report showed the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund gaining 20 years of solvency with reserves not reaching depletion until 2052. If no measures are taken by then, there would only be sufficient income coming in to pay 91 percent of scheduled disability benefits.

According to SSA’s Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill, “The large change in the reserve depletion date for the DI Fund is mainly due to continuing favorable trends in the disability program. Disability applications have been declining since 2010, and the number of disabled-worker beneficiaries receiving payments has been falling since 2014.”

As previously posted on this blog, the decline in beneficiaries can also be attributed to lower nationwide award rates, most notably at the hearing level.

The Trustees also announced a one year improvement in the combined asset reserves of the DI and Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Funds. They now are projected to be depleted in 2035, with 80 percent of benefits payable at that time. The depletion date for the OASI Trust Fund did not change from last year’s estimate of 2034.

The SSA also issued a press release summarizing the Trustees report.