Rising Wait Times for SSDI: What Can Beneficiaries Do?

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Social Security serves as a lifeline for millions of Americans, and the mammoth size of the program is resulting in processing issues as well, especially in the case of SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance). The wait times for SSDI have significantly increased in recent years, resulting in a struggle for many people who are in desperate need of these benefits.

Reasons for higher wait times

In the late 2010s, the SSA (Social Security Administration) usually took around 110 to 120 days to process an SSDI claim. The average wait time now is around 228 days, or more than seven months. What’s even worse is that about 10,000 Americans die each year while their SSDI claim is in the process, according to federal data cited by the AARP.

A major reason for such high wait times is the growing number of disability claims. The overwhelming number of claims filed each year is leading to backlogs in processing.

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 750,000 federal and D.C. government workers, noted that the number of Social Security beneficiaries has increased by about 25% over the last decade, while the SSA’s operating budgets have decreased during the same period. Hiring has dropped by half in recent years, resulting in the SSA staffing levels dropping to a 25-year low at the end of fiscal year 2022.

Additionally, budget constraints and staffing shortages contribute to longer wait times, which the SSA is also aware of and puts much of the blame on. The AFGE recently proposed that Congress provide $20 billion in additional money to the SSA for improving its customer service performance.

The SSA’s strict eligibility criteria and stringent review process can also be blamed for extended wait times. Strict eligibility criteria and a stringent review process mean the agency denies many initial claims, resulting in applicants making lengthy appeals.

One more factor resulting in more wait times for SSDI is the complexity of the application process. Applicants need to support their disability claim with extensive documentation and medical evidence, which not only is time-consuming but proves challenging to gather as well.

COVID-19 is another reason for increased wait times for SSDI. In addition to the shutdown during the pandemic, the corresponding hiring freeze, loss of staff, and higher attrition rates during the pandemic thwarted the SSA’s work efficiency.

In fact, in a 2022 testimony, the SSA Deputy Commissioner for Operations, Grace Kim, informed Congress that the agency urgently needs adequate funding to improve the increased SSDI wait times and deterioration in service.

“….As we dig out from the effects of the pandemic, we must have sustained funding for the public to have continued confidence not just in our agency, but in government,” Kim said at the time.

Higher wait times for SSDI: how it’s impacting beneficiaries

It is no secret that many beneficiaries depend solely on the SSDI benefits for their living expenses, such as housing, food and medical care. Thus, a higher wait time can prove extremely disturbing for such people. It may even exacerbate their health conditions.

Moreover, applicants receive no monetary assistance from the SSA during the application process.  Research has found that about 8,000 applicants file for bankruptcy, while about 10,000 each year die while waiting for the decision on their SSDI claim.

What options do beneficiaries have?

There aren’t many options with applicants if their SSDI claim also joins the long waiting list. The best they can do is seek legal help. Using the services of an attorney or professional disability advocate can help applicants get SSDI benefits faster.

Citing a 2022 study from the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the AARP noted that using legal help early in the SSDI claim process improves the chances of getting the initial claim by 23%.

Also, legal help will help the claimant put their application or claim in a format that has more chances of being approved. Another benefit is that applicants don’t have to worry about the fees for legal assistance.

In such cases, the legal professionals don’t get paid up-front; rather, they get paid only if the claim is approved. In fact, the legal fee comes from past-due benefits, called backpay, that a claimant would have received had the SSA approved their application earlier.

The SSA caps the fee at 25% of the past-due amount or $7,200, whichever is less. In cases where there is no back pay, there is no fee, even if the applicants receive the benefits going forward.

How to fix it

It is not that the SSA doesn’t know about the higher wait times for SSDI. On its end, the agency is making efforts to fix it, or at least assuage the issue, but somehow, those efforts aren’t giving the expected results.

Fixing the issue requires more resources, improved efficiency in claim processing, and more support for applicants, which depends primarily on proper funding.

The SSA received $14.2 billion for its administrative expenses through its 2024 spending agreement with Congress, a marginal increase from $14.1 billion for 2023. Biden’s 2025 fiscal roadmap proposes a 9% increase in the agency’s budget to $15.4 billion, compared to the fiscal 2023 funding.

The SSA plans to invest more in SSA staffing, including about $269 million for field offices, $89 million for hearing centers, $85 million for processing centers, and more. Additionally, the SSA is planning to focus on veteran hiring, training and retention, as well as partnering with universities and institutions that serve underserved communities.

Overall, the agency’s objective is to reach above the end-of-year staffing levels from 2023 and start to process more claims. So, the picture may look blurred for now, but things will hopefully improve soon with improved funding.