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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
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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.

Social Security Trustees Report: DI Trust Fund Solvency Gains 13 Years

2020 April 23
by Mary Dale Walters

The long-term financial status of the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund improved in 2019 adding 13 more years of solvency, according to the Social Security Board of Trustees 2020 annual report released April 22.  

The DI Trust Fund is expected to remain solvent until 2065, in comparison to the Trustees’ estimate of 2052 in 2019. The projection draws from a complex range of demographic, economic and social data, trends and assumptions. In particular, the Trustees cite two factors affecting its calculations: the Social Security Administration’s effort to reduce the hearing backlog and changes in claims adjudication. Both SSDI applications and the number of individuals awarded DI benefits continued to decline.   

Disability incident rates, which have trended down over the past 10 years, are expected to gradually rise in the future, according to the report. Also, estimated labor force participation, wages and unemployment assumptions were considered in the calculation.

However, the projections do not reflect any potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program. “Given the uncertainty associated with these impacts, the Trustees believe it is not possible to adjust estimates accurately at this time,” said Social Security Commissioner Andrew Saul. “The duration and severity of the pandemic will affect the estimates in this year’s report and the financial status of the program, particularly in the short term.”

The 2020 report also said reserves of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund are projected to become depleted in 2034, the same as last year.

Pandemic Likely To Increase SSDI Claims and Processing Times

2020 April 2

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
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
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
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
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.