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Pandemic Likely To Increase SSDI Claims and Processing Times

2020 April 2
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Developments in the wake of the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic may signal the approach of mounting workloads and backlogs for the Social Security Administration.

The agency continues to provide updates and offers a special coronavirus section on its website. This includes the announcement that SSA has reduced its telephone hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. local time, and is now answering the phones from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. local time. Also, the SSA states, it is normal to anticipate telephone wait times of 90 minutes or more.

The agency also outlines a telephone-based emphasis to assisting disability applications for the most severe disabilities, including those with a terminal illness, Wounded Warrior claims, and those qualifying for a Compassionate Allowances, which leaves a larger number not accounted for. 

Along with these developments, a number of other factors indicate initial application processing times and backlogs are likely to grow, including:

  • Social Security disability applications are increasing. Even before the pandemic crisis, monthly disability applications were up 19 percent in the first two months of 2020, compared to the same two months in 2019.
  • The unemployment rate is rapidly growing, and historically, the SSDI program experiences an increase in applications when joblessness increases. Note, that generally the unemployment rate for people with disabilities is double the rate of unemployment for those without disabilities. Individuals who may have been marginally employed, or experiencing worsening health conditions, may find it impossible to delay their SSDI application any longer.
  • With the transition of more than 60,000 employees to a teleworking environment, other workloads are on hold and capacity is likely reduced for processing of incoming workloads.
  • About 1,230 field offices and 164 hearing offices that were open to the public, are now closed, restricting normal business processes that were supported by important administrative infrastructure, such as printing, imaging and equipment-based functions. As a result, overall SSA functionality has been reduced.
  • The SSA’s disability determination process often requires many claimants to be evaluated by medical professionals through Consultative Exams (CEs). SSA has reported plans to postpone CEs, at least through April 30, and reschedule them at a later time, thus delaying their decisions. 

Already, SSA officials had projected initial disability claims pending to increase from 565,000 to 890,000 from FY 2019 to FY 2021, a 58 percent increase. In addition, average initial processing times were expected to rise 18 days from 111 to 129 days from FY 2018 to FY 2021.

Allsup will continue to monitor developments and program changes with the Social Security Administration during the ongoing pandemic.

SSA Field Offices Close To Public

2020 March 17
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration is closing all of its local field offices to the public effective Tuesday, March 17, 2020 due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, according to the press release.

The Agency will continue to provide essential services to the public over the phone and through online services, if applicable. Claimants with a Hearing scheduled before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) will be contacted and offered alternative choices, such as having their ALJ Hearing conducted by video or phone, or be postponed.

Allsup will continue to monitor this ongoing situation and post additional details as they become available.

President’s Budget Proposal Includes Slight Increase For SSA

2020 February 17
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by Mary Dale Walters

The Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposes $13.7 billion for the Social Security Administration (SSA), which is a slight increase from $13.3 billion in FY2020. The budget includes a number of reforms to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program that it believes will reduce costs, improve efficiencies and lower the number of claimants who ultimately receive benefits. 

Provisions include:

  • A renewed effort to reduce the retroactive payment period prior for disability beneficiaries to six months from 12 months, which the administration states would align the program with retirement benefits.
  • A plan to offset SSDI payments with unemployment insurance benefits if the individual is among a small number receiving both concurrently. Some estimates put this number at less than one half of one percent.
  • Permitting state Disability Determination Service (DDS) staff to conduct hearings related to the cessation of benefits issued by a “federal component.” This provision could support the SSA’s efforts to increase the number and frequency of full medical Continuing Disability Reviews, which can lead to cessation of benefits.

The SSA also proposes removing the requirement of signed authorization from a disability applicant in order to retrieve medical evidence from custodians of claimant records. In addition, among efforts to reduce and recover overpayments, the administration calls for excluding SSA debts from being discharged in a bankruptcy unless it would cause an undue hardship.

The administration’s plan is considered a starting point for discussions with the appropriators in Congress. Allsup will continue to monitor budget provisions for FY2021, which begins Oct. 1, 2020.

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.