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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.

SSA Reports Continued Progress With Hearing Backlog

2019 April 19
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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
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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
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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:


December SSDI Applications Lowest Since 2002

2019 January 15
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration reported SSDI applications totaled 123,073 in December 2018, which is a low not seen since December 2002 (115,323 applications)—16 years ago.  For the year, 2,073,293 SSDI applications were filed in 2018, down from their peak of 2,935,798 in 2010.

December awards also were low, with 54,186 SSDI claims approved. Monthly award totals have not topped 70,000 since April 2016, and continue a declining trend of more than six years.

The ongoing drop in SSDI applications aligns with forecasts by SSA officials, including the Office of the Chief Actuary, earlier in 2018. This trend was cited by the SSA as one factor in the federal agency’s recent initiative to reinstate the Reconsideration  level of appeal in 10 states beginning this month. Claimants previously “skipped” this level of appeal and proceeded to the hearing level in those states (more details).

In addition, declining applications and a resulting decline in awards have been factors in the extension of the Disability Insurance Trust Fund projected depletion date from 2028 to 2032, according to the 2018 Social Security Board of Trustees report.

Declining Social Security disability applications have been attributed to a number of factors, including an improving economy, the closure of field offices across the U.S., an aging workforce accessing Social Security retirement benefits, and the increasing difficulty of receiving SSDI benefits due to lower approval rates.


November Nationwide SSDI Awards: Lowest Month Since 2004

2018 December 17
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by Steve Perrigo

The number of SSDI awards issued for November 2018 was 47,715, which is the lowest monthly total reported since July 2004. It’s also significantly lower than the first 10 months of 2018, which averaged 63,198 awards per month. Factors in the awards decline may include lower staffing, fewer applications, lower award rates, weather interruptions, limited overtime, and the Thanksgiving holiday.  

The most current quarterly employment data shows the SSA lost 589 staff in Q2 2018, down to 60,898 from 61,487, as of June 30, 2018. The number of administrative law judges also declined by 18, down to 1,662 ALJs from 1,680 the prior quarter.



SSA Disability Forum Focuses On Upcoming Reconsideration Level Changes

2018 November 30
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration (SSA) hosted its latest National Disability Forum, Nov. 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C., to gather ideas for “Enhancing the Reconsideration Process.” Among the panelists and speakers were representatives from the SSA; the House Ways & Means Social Security Subcommittee; the National Council on Disability; organizations comprised of disability examiners who work at state Disability Determination Services (DDS); and trade groups for claimant representatives.

The agency didn’t invite discussion of its controversial initiative to reinstate the Reconsideration level of the Social Security Disability program in 10 states.  Nor did the agency initially provide the group with any details about the roll out of their plan.

However, Kathryn Olson, Democratic staff director for the Social Security subcommittee included a critical detail in her presentation – the agency’s fast-approaching reinstatement timeline. In response to a question from the audience, an agency representative confirmed the dates, and Allsup later obtained hiring data. The reinstatement adds a total of 777 staff who will be trained to administer and adjudicate Reconsideration appeals in the 10 states.

Olson also reported that the subcommittee, as well as both Democratic and Republican members from 48 states in the House and 10 states in the Senate, had requested the agency reverse its decision to reinstate Reconsideration in the skip states. Several panelists reiterated their organization’s position that the Reconsideration level should be eliminated from the disability program entirely.

Other wide-ranging topics discussed in the three-hour program were recommendations for enhancements and, generally, fell into evergreen subject areas. Panelists discussed ideas for improving the collection of medical evidence, obtaining qualified contractors to conduct Consultative Exams (CEs), bolstering staff training on agency policies and procedures, stronger one-on-one communication with claimants and more effective use of technology tools.

SSA Receives Reduced Budget In FY 2019

2018 October 23
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by Steve Perrigo

The Social Security Administration can expect reduced administrative funding in fiscal year (FY) 2019 (Oct. 1, 2018-Sept. 30, 2019) when compared with FY2018.

Congress passed and President Trump signed a minibus appropriations act that incorporated SSA funding and offered $12 million less in total Limitation on Administrative Expenses (LAE). The budget allocates $12,741,945,000 for the current fiscal year, which is a decline from $12,753,945,000 in FY 2018.

The allocation stipulated a $52 million reduction in funds directed to program integrity activities, including Continuing Disability Reviews. With the SSA’s reported progress in eliminating the CDRs backlog, the difference in allocation should provide up to $40 million toward other SSA operations. Information technology funding also declined from $280 million to $45 million for FY 2019, though unspent funds provided in 2018 may roll-over to the current fiscal year.

One bright spot is $100 million allocated toward reducing the disability hearing backlog in FY 2019, with the ability to rollover unspent funds through the end of FY 2020.

Although the allocations result in a slight increase in funding to core SSA operations, essentially it represents a decline due to an estimated $300 million in fixed cost increases, such as facilities and personnel, which take a larger bite of administrative costs each year. 

The bill also contained guidance for the SSA on key reports and operations, including oversight of administrative law judges (ALJs). It states, “It is vital that Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) be independent, impartial, and selected based on their qualifications. The conferees expect SSA to maintain a high standard for the appointment of ALJs, including the requirement that ALJs have demonstrated experience as a licensed attorney and pass an ALJ examination administered by the Office of Personnel Management.”


SSA Announces 2.8% COLA For 2019

2018 October 11
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by Steve Perrigo

Today the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced the cost of living adjustment (COLA) for 2019 will be 2.8%.  This is higher than last year’s 2.0% raise and the largest increase since the COLA in 2011 of 3.6%.  Click here for full list of COLAs since 1975.

The average monthly SSDI benefit will increase to $1,234 from $1,200, an increase of $34 (or $408 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 $132,900 from $128,400. The SSA outlines additional details in its Fact Sheet.

  • Substantial gainful activity (SGA). The monthly threshold for non-blind will increase to $1,220 per month from $1,180 per month. For blind, it will increase to $2,040 per month from $1,970 per month.
  • Quarter of coverage. Earnings required for a quarter of coverage increases to $1,360 from $1,320. 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 $880 per month from $850 per month.

The increase takes effect in January 2019 for more than 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. 

SSA Commissioner Nominee Completes Senate Hearing

2018 October 3
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by Steve Perrigo

The Senate Finance Committee hearing on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, to consider Andrew Saul as the next Social Security Administration (SSA) commissioner was relatively brief, but Senators were quick to zero in on several critical bi-partisan concerns – the disability hearing backlog, in-person field office service and modernization of agency technology infrastructure.

Saul is not well known in Social Security circles and had a large in-person audience, including representatives from Allsup, professional trade groups, non-profit organizations, House Ways & Means Social Security Subcommittee staff, media, and Saul family members.

Saul several times referred to his business experience and to his leadership of the Federal Retirement Thrift Board. He gave few specifics about plans for the SSA, but vowed he would work closely with Congress and “become an expert.”

Specifically, he pledged to conduct a “top-to-bottom” review of the disability hearing backlog and “get to the bottom of what’s going on. People are in really bad shape and need this help,” he said.

Several Senators asked for his position on privatizing the Social Security retirement program. Senator Wyden (D-OR) asked if Saul “supported” privatization and Saul responded “no.” The nominee went on to testify that “privatization is a decision of the U.S. Treasury and Congress.”

One topic noticeably missing was the recent Lucia Supreme Court case and subsequent Executive Order which puts the power of hiring Administrative Law Judges in the commissioner’s hands.   

Confirmation seems likely at this point and Saul would serve the remainder of the current term ending January 19, 2019.  At that time, he would again have to be nominated and confirmed for the next six-year term expiring in 2025.

No committee vote has been scheduled.