Why Social Security Disability Insurance System Is Crumbling

By Jim Allsup, Special to the Mercury News
San Jose Mercury News
April 18, 2009

The worst recession in decades is a scary period for many American families, but it's a time of particular peril for those living with work-limiting disabilities, especially in states such as California where involuntary furloughs and layoffs of the state employees who process Social Security Disability Insurance claims will further bog down a system that is already in crisis.

The Social Security Disability Insurance system (SSDI) is crumbling under the pressure of a substantial disabled population, shrinking budgets and a wave of agency retirements. Social Security employees work as hard as they can to help people who deserve care, but their best efforts aren't putting a dent in a hearing backlog of 765,000 disabled Americans including 62,031 Californians waiting months or years to receive their rightful benefits.

The recession is making things even worse. Commissioner Michael Astrue recently told the media the SSA is facing an unanticipated 10 percent increase in its disability claims caseload. That's 250,000 additional cases the SSA needs to review, further bogging down the system.

As tough as the disability application process is, it's no surprise so many people try to avoid it at all costs. But when the economy gets bad, some realize that because of additional financial strains, they can no longer afford to live without the disability benefits they are owed. They may have been struggling to keep working with a progressive health problem and have now lost their job. Perhaps the spouse who had been supporting the family suddenly loses her job.

California's shortsighted scramble to balance its budget is adding to the misery. The Social Security Administration relies on state employees to process disability claims, but provides a full reimbursement for all expenses. So Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's plan to force these employees to take time off won't save the state any money. It will just add to the nation's largest disability backlog.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue recently criticized these kinds of furlough programs, saying: "States do not save any money when they furlough or lay off these employees. They only delay payments to disabled citizens who rely on the monthly benefits."

Over the long run, more resources for the SSA will be needed to meet this challenge, but a simple, cost-free step could make an immediate difference. Because applicants are new to the SSDI process and often don't know help is available, too many initial claims are denied for simple mistakes that have nothing to do with the applicant's disability status. In other cases, applicants who don't meet the standards for disability but might if their conditions worsen over time bog down the system when a simple prequalification process would let them know they aren't ready yet.

Congress and the president should immediately direct the SSA to notify applicants that they have options when pursuing their claims. Expert disability representatives work exactly like tax professionals to help guide applicants through a complex government process, create a complete filing, comply with the rules and laws, and advocate for them before a federal agency.

Many hundreds of thousands of government worker-hours would be saved if more applications processed by the SSA were professionally screened and documented before they are submitted.

Ultimately, each individual applicant will decide how best to pursue a claim. For some, working alone might be their choice. For many others, the multiyear application process, the risks of mistakes and missed appeal deadlines that will further delay benefits are simply too daunting to deal with alone. Jim Allsup is founder and president of Allsup, the country"s largest non-attorney Social Security Disability Insurance representation company. He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

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