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Nationwide Disability Award Rates Inch Up in 2020

2021 April 27
by Mary Dale Walters

Approval rates for those seeking disability benefits in FY2020 improved across most of the program, according to data provided by the Social Security Administration (SSA). In response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by Allsup, the agency reported that decision rates favored both initial applicants and those appealing for benefits at the reconsideration and hearing levels in 2020.

Among initial applicants, 39% were awarded benefits in 2020, compared to 37% in 2019. Fourteen percent of claimants who received a decision at reconsideration were approved, one percent higher than the previous year. Of particular note, favorable decision rates at the hearing level jumped, from 45% in 2019 to 49% in 2020.

A number of factors, especially the pandemic and fewer claimants requesting benefits, likely influenced decision rates:

  • Delays in SSA-required Consultative Exams (CE) slowed the processing of claims, allowing those with the most severe conditions (Compassionate Allowances) to be prioritized and move through quickly compared to other claims.
  • Applications for SSDI benefits dropped substantially, in part due to the impact of Covid-19 in the last six months of the fiscal year, including SSA office closures and limited access to health care services.
  • The reconsideration appeal was fully reinstated across the country in 2020, which affected former workers seeking benefits in 10 states, including those with large populations such as New York, Pennsylvania and a portion of California. The added appeal level slowed the entry of tens of thousands of claimants who previously would have moved directly to the hearing level after their initial application was denied.
  • Claimants moved more quickly through the hearing level, as the SSA made substantial progress in reducing wait times and its inventory of claims. Hearing offices disposed of 219,149 claims in FY2020.

SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul recently appealed to the Biden Administration, calling out the impact of funding shortfalls on the agency and programs. While the President’s proposed budget included a $1.3 billion increase for SSA, it fell $900 million short of the agency’s previous request, affecting CEs for applicants and appellants and Continuing Disability Reviews among beneficiaries, according to Saul.   

President Biden Proposes 9.7% Budget Increase For SSA

2021 April 9
by Steve Perrigo

President Biden announced his budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 including $14.2 billion for the Social Security Administration (SSA), which is an increase of $1.3 billion, or 9.7%, compared with the fiscal year 2021 enacted level.

The increased funding is designed to improve disability determinations, outreach to communities, ensure proper payments and modernize technology at the federal agency, according to the administration.

Of the funds, $895 million is targeted to SSA field offices, state Disability Determination Services (DDS) and teleservice centers for beneficiaries. The intention is to support SSA with its ongoing operational challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, in particular to reduce disability claims processing times and answer customer service calls, according to the proposal.

Other targets with the funding include $75 million for outreach for ensuring accessibility of Supplemental Security Income (SSDI) benefits, $283 million increase for program integrity work, and improving customer service through IT modernization.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Releases 2020 Labor Force Statistics for Workers with Disabilities

2021 March 3
by Mary Dale Walters

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) confirmed the outsized impact the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to control it had on workers with disabilities in 2020. In 2020, 29% of people with disabilities between age 16 and 64 were employed, slightly down from 30.9% in 2019. The unemployment rate for this same group was 13.4% in 2020 or a 5.4% increase over 2019. The data were collected as part of the Current Population Survey (CPS), a monthly sample survey of approximately 60,000 households that provides statistics about employment and unemployment.

When comparing people with disabilities to those without, the results were comparable, regardless of the raw numbers. For persons without a disability, 61.8 percent were employed in 2020, down from 66.3 % in the prior year. The unemployment rate for this group was 7.9%, a 4.4% increase over 2019.

The 2020 survey revealed some noteworthy highlights about people with disabilities ages 16 to 64:

  • Only 29% of people with disabilities (from the total civilian noninstitutional population[1]) were employed, while 70% of people without disabilities were employed in 2020.
  • 25% of workers with disabilities were employed part-time, compared to 15% of workers without disabilities.
  • Of the total number of people with a disability who are not in the labor force, 41% are between ages 16-64. Further, 5% of those with a disability in this age range currently want a job. This breaks down almost evenly between men and women, with men taking a slight edge.

The BLS data shed light on several areas across all ages for both people with and without disabilities.

  • Overall, women were somewhat more likely to have a disability than men; the prevalence of disability remained higher for Blacks and Whites than for Hispanics and Asians.
  • Across all levels of education, persons with a disability were much less likely to be employed than were their corresponding counterparts without a disability.
  • Persons with a disability were more likely to work in service occupations, including healthcare support, protective services or building and grounds maintenance than those without a disability. However, persons with a disability were less likely to work in management, professional and related occupations.
  • Among persons with a disability, the jobless rates for Hispanics, Blacks and Asians were higher than the rate for Whites.

For more information:

[1] People 16 years of age and older residing in the 50 states and District of Columbia who are not inmates of institutions or on active duty in the Armed Forces

SSA Leadership Changes Announced

2021 January 21
by Mary Dale Walters

Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Andrew Saul announced key senior leadership changes as the new Biden administration transitioned into the White House yesterday. Most notable was the departure of Mark Warshawsky, Deputy Commissioner, The Office of Retirement and Disability Policy (ORDP), who was appointed to the position three and a half years ago.   

The agency said he will be succeeded by Kilolo Kijakazi, a social insurance policy expert and relative SSA outsider. The ORDP leader has responsibility for SSA’s retirement and disability policy, its research division and the Ticket to Work program.

A fellow at the Urban Institute, much of Kijakazi’s policy and research career has focused on economic and social issues, especially those affecting women and people of color, such as structural racism and the racial and gender wealth gaps. Prior to the Urban Institute she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation where she worked to broaden the diversity of those engaged in influencing and building economic security for citizens.  Also, she was a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and a member of the Bipartisan Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings.  

The SSA also announced that Scott Frey, former Deputy Commissioner for Legislation and Congressional Affairs from 2010 to 2014, will return to the agency as Chief of Staff (COS) to Commissioner Saul. Current COS, Stephanie Hall, will move to the Office of Operations as a second Assistant Deputy Commissioner.  

Of note, Frey most recently was Counselor to the President of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. A number of unions and employee groups recently have called for Commissioner Saul, as well as SSA Deputy Commissioner David Black, to be removed, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the Association of Administrative Law Judges.

The new administration has not publicly signaled its plans to keep or replace Commissioner Saul who still has almost four years remaining in his six-year term. The agency was without a Senate-appointed commissioner for more than six years prior to his appointment in 2019.  

Nationwide SSDI Awards In 2020 Fewest Since 2000

2021 January 14
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) reported nationwide Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) awards declined another 10.5% in 2020 to 648,121, their lowest volume since 2000. SSDI awards have fallen 9 out of the past 10 years since peaking at 1,052,551 in 2010, a decline of 38%.

Applications for SSDI benefits decreased by 83,627 (6.4%) to 1,226,236 in 2020. This is down 36 percent from 2010 when applications peaked at 1,926,398.

SSA To Notify Claimants Of Video Hearing Option

2020 December 3
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) issued a “Dear Colleague” notice yesterday announcing it will start mailing special notices to pending Social Security Disability Insurance applicants that explain hearing options during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Claimants will be directed to choose from a telephone hearing, online video hearing, or both, according to the SSA. Other hearing witnesses, such as medical or vocational experts, will only participate by phone.

According to the notice:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of finding new ways to serve the public,” said Commissioner of Social Security Andrew Saul. “For over a decade, the agency has used video hearings to get applicants their hearing decisions sooner. This advancement builds on that effort, making it easier and more convenient to attend a hearing remotely, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. To continue to ensure all participants’ safety, we expect online video hearings and telephone hearings will be the only two hearing options for the foreseeable future.”

This news follows SSA’s Sept. 3 announcement that they would provide a new online video hearing platform, Microsoft Teams, for claimants. With online video hearings, claimants and their representative can participate in sessions with access via camera-enabled smartphone, tablet, or computer and internet. Similar to in-person hearings, the virtual platform allows for interaction with administrative law judges.

Social Security Beneficiaries To Receive 1.3% COLA In 2021

2020 October 13
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) today announced the cost of living adjustment (COLA) will be 1.3% in 2021. This is slightly lower than the 1.6% increase applied to benefits this year, and significantly lower than 2.8% and 2.0% the prior two years. Click here for a history of COLAs since 1975.

The average monthly SSDI benefit will increase to $1,277 from $1,261, an increase of $16 (or $192 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 $142,800 from $137,700 in 2021. The SSA outlines additional details in its Fact Sheet.

Other amounts will change, including:

  • Substantial gainful activity (SGA). The monthly threshold for non-blind individuals will increase to $1,310 per month from $1,260 per month. For blind workers, it will increase to $2,190 per month from $2,110 per month.
  • Quarter of coverage. Earnings required for a quarter of coverage increases to $1,470 from $1,410. 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 $940 per month from $910 per month.

The increase takes effect in January 2021 for 70 million Social Security beneficiaries.

Second Lawsuit Filed Against SSA Over Wet Signature Requirements

2020 August 18
by Mary Dale Walters

The United Spinal Association, a national advocacy organization, announced today it is suing the Social Security Administration, challenging the agency’s requirement of “wet signatures” for certain online disability benefits applications. United Spinal Association v. Andrew M. Saul seeks permanent declarative and injunctive relief from the signature requirements that affect SSDI and SSI claimants who retain disability representatives.

United Spinal alleges the agency violates the Administrative Procedure Act by creating barriers to the complex disability program that violate longstanding federal statutes requiring acceptance of electronic signatures, and are arbitrary and capricious. The signature policy also “impermissibly adds further conditions for appearances by counsel before SSA and violates the First Amendment’s protection for citizens seeking to petition and otherwise communicate with the government.” Further, the requirements are invalid because SSA did not adopt them through required notice-and-comment rulemaking,” according to the complaint.

The organization calls on the SSA to comply fully with a range of Congressional mandates passed over the past three decades, including The E-SIGN Act and the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

Fifty-six percent of initial claimants submit their disability applications online, according to the SSA. Typically, 27% of applicants retain representatives when they first apply. Approximately 1.6 million former workers and low-income individuals with disabilities have applied for SSDI and SSI benefits fiscal year-to-date, and approximately 600,000 initial applicants are currently waiting for decisions. The plaintiff cites the Office of Management and Budget’s analysis concluding that claimants with representatives are 2.9 times more likely to receive favorable decisions.

Wet signature requirements for representative appointments and fee agreements add weeks or months to an applicant’s wait. Applicants also must sign and return a printed copy of the online iClaim summary mailed to them by SSA. Claimants, beneficiaries and representatives may use electronic signatures for other SSA purposes, such as for disability appeals.

This is the second time in recent months that the agency’s signature requirements for online applicants have been challenged by a large advocacy organization. The SSA temporarily suspended wet signature requirements in May after the National Federation of the Blind and co-plaintiffs called on SSA to adapt its procedures to minimize risk of claimants seeking benefits during the pandemic.

SSDI Hearing Level Update

2020 July 6
tags: ,
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration continues to make progress at the hearing level, despite the challenges of working remotely during the pandemic, limited overtime hours, and a further reduction in the number of administrative law judges (ALJs).

According to the SSA, the number of ALJs on duty in May 2020 fell to 1,388, down from almost 1,700 in late 2017. Overtime continues to be minimal for the Office of Hearings Operations this fiscal year, working a total of less than 2,000 hours in the past 6 months combined, compared to averaging over 50,000 hours per month last fiscal year (FY).

Hearing decisions have slowed significantly the past two months. The number of daily hearing dispositions (e.g. awards, denials, dismissals) per ALJ fell to 1.40 per day in May 2020, after April was also historically low at 1.79 per day. Last fiscal year, ALJ’s produced 2.25 dispositions per day.

Despite the slowdown in decisions, the amount of pending hearings and average processing times continued their steady decline, helped by fewer new hearing requests received.

Total hearings pending declined to 450,048 cases in May 2020, down 22% from 575,421 cases at the end of FY 2019. In comparison, there were 858,383 claimants awaiting a hearing at the end of FY 2018, and over 1 million in FY 2017.

The national average processing time at the hearing level fell to 357 days, down 149 days from the FY 2019 average of 506 days. In FY 2018, it took an average of 595 days to obtain a hearing decision.

SSA Temporarily Suspends Wet Signature Requirements for Online Applications

2020 May 19
by Mary Dale Walters

The Social Security Administration (SSA) told the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia on Monday, May 18, 2020, that it would temporarily allow the use of electronic signatures on some key forms submitted by initial disability applicants. The agency decision, effective “no later than May 22, 2020,” was in response to a request for a preliminary injunction by the plaintiffs in the National Federation of the Blind, et. al v. Andrew Saul.

The temporary policy change would suspend the SSA’s “wet” signature requirement on its Appointment of Representative (1696) and related Fee Agreement forms required only for SSDI and SSI claimants with representatives submitting an initial application for benefits online. The decision comes as the agency works to ensure access to services during the coronavirus pandemic. Though requested by the plaintiffs, the agency has not paused beneficiaries’ wet signature requirements for Continuing Disability Reviews (CDR), noting it has suspended initiating these during COVID-19.

An Allsup analysis suggests that approximately 27% of the approximately 2 million initial SSDI applicants have a representative. About 56% of all disability applicants utilize the online application, including a large majority of representatives who SSA request adopt the process. Singling out those claimants who seek a representative to help confirm likely eligibility, collect necessary data and provide guidance through the complex disability program could delay applicants by weeks, or more during the current health crisis.

The SSA has been under pressure from representatives, the Office of Management and Budget, disability organizations, and others to adopt electronic signatures in response to COVID-19 and in its effort to modernize service delivery overall. However, the agency recently re-stated the requirements in its Program Operations Manual System (POMS). Claimants, beneficiaries, and representatives may use electronic signatures for a large number of other SSA forms, such as those related to disability appeals.

The temporary suspension outlined in the SSA’s declaration to the court includes supplemental steps that claimants and their representatives may need to take by telephone to ensure proper processing of the forms. Not addressed in the suit is the agency’s administration of the iClaim form for online applicants whose wet signature on the attestation also can slow online applications.