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Continuing Resolution Extends SSA Funding Through Dec. 20

2019 November 22
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.

SSA Reports Continued Progress With Hearing Backlog

2019 April 19
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration reported another decline in both pending disability hearings and the national average wait time during the second quarter of fiscal year (FY) 2019, which ended March 30, 2019. Results indicate the federal agency is making significant progress in its effort to eliminate the hearing backlog by FY2021.

Pending hearings declined from 858,383 to 723,755 in the past 6 months, and are down considerably from peaking at over 1.1 million in FY2016. The wait time at the hearing level now averages 530 days compared with 595 days for FY2018.

The SSA has reported a target of 591,000 hearings pending and national average wait time of 515 days by the end of FY2019 on Sept. 30, 2019.


SSA Report: Increased Optimism For Hearing Backlog Reduction and Shorter Waiting Times

2019 March 28
by Steve Perrigo

With the Social Security Administration’s release of its Annual Performance Plan/Report for Fiscal Years (FY) 2018-2020, agency officials have provided more insight into the shifts within the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, including results from its efforts to reduce the hearing backlog.

SSA officials appear confident that they will have reduced the hearing backlog by the end of FY 2021, and project a national average 270 days wait for a hearing, amid efforts that cut the current pending caseload in half. FY 2019 is targeted to have a backlog of 591,000 claims and national average wait time of 515 days, with those figures dropping to 385,000 pending claims and 390 days by the end of FY 2020.  The backlog peaked at over 1.1 million pending claims in 2016, and an average waiting time for a hearing over 600 days.

At the same time, the number of claims pending Reconsideration will increase as 10 states add this appeal to the SSDI review process. SSA estimates claimants pending at Reconsideration will rise from 115,028 in FY 2018 to 158,000 in FY 2019, and then 233,000 in FY 2020. However, wait times will remain relatively stable, increasing from 103 days in FY 2018 to 105 days in FY 2019 and FY 2020.

The number of initial disability claims pending is expected to remain flat at 565,000 from FY 2018 to FY 2019, but then rise 24% to 700,000 in FY 2020. The SSA states in the report that some estimates have been revised due to SSA Chief Actuary projections.

Additional developments affecting the SSDI program include:

  • Video Hearings: SSA plans to expand video hearings network to ”balance workloads nationally and provide more timely service to claimants served by hearing offices with the longest wait times.”
  • Workforce changes: The SSA reports anticipating higher call volumes, attrition rates, and new hires that are not yet fully productive in FY 2019, which will affect productivity, including speed of answer (13 minutes in FY 2019) and agent busy rates (9%). SSA predicts more than 21,000 employees will retire by fiscal year-end 2022. As of September 2018, SSA had 62,519 employees.
  • Legislative proposal for retroactive benefits: The SSA proposes to “Reduce 12-Month Retroactive DI Benefits to Six Months.” Currently new SSDI beneficiaries are eligible for 12 months of benefits before the date of their application, depending on the date they became disabled. The agency reports this measure would save $316 million in program outlays if enacted.
  • Expand case triage prior to hearings: The SSA’s Proactive Analysis and Triage for Hearings (PATH) began in April 2017, and identifies cases most likely to be fully favorable before reaching an administrative law judge (ALJ). The SSA reports incorporating the National Adjudication Team (NAT) with the PATH, and automating this process in FY 2020.

Find the SSA’s budget overview and performance plan online.

Hearing Award Rates Drop 2% Nationwide In FY 2018

2019 February 5
by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) reported nationwide award rates at the initial and reconsideration levels remaining in the same narrow range for fiscal year (FY) 2018. Since FY 2010, initial level award rates have remained between 32-35%, while reconsideration level award rates have stayed between 11-13%.

The largest change in award rates occurred at the hearing level, where the nationwide rate fell 2%, from 47% to 45%. In FY 2010, the hearing level award rate was 62%.

The “waterfall” chart below is released annually by the SSA as part of its budget reporting process, but was provided early to Allsup through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request: