The Social Security disability application process and subsequent backlog has been berated and debated for many years. Congressional budget cuts to the Social Security Administration (SSA) over the course of 2010-2018 forced the SSA to close field offices and reduce staff, leading to long wait times and delays in resolving benefit issues. Meanwhile, the need for Social Security benefits increased by double digits during the same time period when the budget was significantly reduced. Therefore, the SSA’s efforts to meet beneficiaries’ needs at this crucial time fell short without the necessary funding. Given the fact that disability claimants find themselves both medically and financially vulnerable makes the issue even more confounding. During those same eight years, the backlog in disability appeal cases grew substantially. In 2018, the average wait for a hearing decision was 591 days, which represented an increase of nearly 40% since 2010. Leading to the disturbing reality that claimants have literally passed away while waiting for a final decision in their disability case.
At times, SSA has received funding to alleviate the backlog that resulted in hundreds of administrative law judges (ALJ) being hired since 2016, helping to reduce the million-plus case backlog. However, the backlog became more of a concern again when the reconsideration level of appeal was reinstated in the 10 prototype states, including Pennsylvania, effective April 20, 2019. This means that in all states, all claimants must wait for adjudication at first the initial level of appeal, and then at the reconsideration level of appeal before speaking with an ALJ at hearing level for final adjudication. However, despite the change, it must be acknowledged that in the latter part of 2019, we had seen an improvement of the wait times. Then, coronavirus threatened this progress by forcing SSA to shutter local offices and Offices of Hearing Operation to in-person services nationally on March 17 with no end in sight.
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