Biden proposal could be the answer to Social Security disability benefit woes

Pandemic has had devastating impact on SSDI applicants

A Social Security Administration building in Burbank, Calif., is seen in November. The backlog of pending disability applications at the SSA has had serious consequences for Americans with disabilities, Allsup writes.  (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
A Social Security Administration building in Burbank, Calif., is seen in November. The backlog of pending disability applications at the SSA has had serious consequences for Americans with disabilities, Allsup writes. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted June 29, 2021 at 5:30am

The announcement that President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget proposal would provide a 9.7 percent increase, or $1.3 billion, in funding to the Social Security Administration is certainly a promising step toward a return to post-pandemic normalcy.

Like many government agencies, the SSA closed the bulk of its field offices to protect the health of employees and customers during COVID-19, but the ripple effect for those applying for Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, has been devastating.

Amid the pandemic, the backlog of pending disability applications awaiting a decision rose by 30 percent, from 593,944 in 2019 to 763,747 last year. The processing times for applications increased by 11 days, meaning the average application took 131 days for the SSA to process. These delays have tangible consequences — from missed mortgage payments to increased rates of depression — which is why an increase in SSA funding could be a lifesaving measure for millions of Americans with disabilities.

The SSDI application backlog was a problem even before the pandemic, but wait times have increased dramatically since it began. Without extra funding to help alleviate the burden, the lives of millions will remain at stake. Over the last decade, 110,000 Americans have died while waiting to receive a determination on their disability benefits.

Existing applications are not the only problem the SSA faces in the coming months. According to a 2020 Italian study, 87.4 percent of individuals who recovered from COVID-19 had at least one lingering, long-term symptom, such as fatigue, reduced lung capacity or heart damage. These findings indicate that initial SSDI claims will continue to increase as more individuals are diagnosed with long-term disabilities as a result of COVID-19. As those cases reach the hearing level, wait times are likely to increase even more than they did over the course of this last year.

The impact of lengthy wait times on individuals with disabilities is long-ranging, from the financial implications to the emotional distress of being out of work and without an income. An Allsup customer survey found that 40 percent of individuals waiting on SSDI benefits have had to borrow money from friends or family to make ends meet, while more than 1 in 4 have missed credit card or loan payments. Others have suffered from the physical toll of this lengthy process, with 40 percent reporting that their primary illness worsened and nearly two-thirds struggling with anxiety or depression.

Americans who report some type of disability or chronic medical condition make up 25 percent of our country’s adult population and are considered by some as the largest minority group. While only a small number of these individuals have a condition so severe that they meet SSDI’s stringent eligibility requirements, many will see their conditions worsen in the near future. At that time, they will expect and deserve an efficient review and access to the insurance benefits they paid for when they were working.

They deserve the consideration and respect of our lawmakers to address the challenges they face and maintain programs and support like SSDI. Congress should approve the proposed increase to Social Security funding, which would help alleviate the increasing SSDI applications backlog and help make significant progress toward undoing the damage wrought by the pandemic.

There is no going back to a time before COVID-19, and those with lingering symptoms will likely add to the growing number of Americans filing claims for SSDI because of work-disrupting disabilities. Implementing this budget is not enough to solve every problem the SSA faces going forward, but it is a strong step in the right direction and the beginning of a new era for disability awareness and equality.

Jim Allsup is the president and CEO of Allsup, a national provider of Social Security and Medicare disability claim services.