Appealing a claim for Social Security payments still takes far longer than it should

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When the Social Security Administration denies someone’s claim for supplemental or disability payments, there are a lot of ways to appeal that decision. But the process can and often does take years. The delays are so significant that members of Congress wanted to know how many Americans are dying or getting forced into bankruptcy while they’re awaiting a decision. The Government Accountability Office tried to answer that question, and in the process, they came up with new data on just how long the appeals process really takes. Elizabeth Curda is a director on GAO’s Education, Workforce and Income Security team. She talked with Deputy Editor Jared Serbu on Federal Drive with Tom Temin about the new findings.

Interview transcript:

Elizabeth Curda: Appeals can take a very long time to reach a final conclusion. We looked at wait times of people who are appealing their denial of a disability benefit claim over a 10-year period. And we found that it can be especially long if they are appealing at multiple levels of review. Someone who wants to appeal their disability claim can – there’s three levels of review. They can ask for a reconsideration of the initial decision. They can ask after that they can ask for a hearing before an administrative law judge. And then finally, if they’re still denied, they can go before an appeals council. Most people waited more than one year for a final decision. The median time – the median wait time rose after the Great Recession, peaking in 2015 at one 839 days, which is about 2.3 years. The demographics of people appealing their claims are generally older Americans and those with less education. But we found that the wait times didn’t vary much, didn’t vary much by age, sex or education level.

Jared Serbu: And you know, at the risk of stating the obvious, wait times of that duration are are kind of crazy in this context, because almost by definition, this is a population of people who are facing economic difficulty that’s pretty serious. And they need the money right now, not two-and-a-half years from now. But the specific issue you were asked to look at is whether there was an increase in deaths and bankruptcies during those extended waits, I think? You can tell me if I miss characterizing that, but I know the data –

Elizabeth Curda: That’s correct.

Jared Serbu: I know the data is a little bit noisier there are partly because it’s really hard to tell whether there’s a direct causal relationship between the wait time and the death or the bankruptcy, but in that data, did you find anything of significance that jumped out at you?

Elizabeth Curda: That’s right, we can’t say for sure that the fact that they were waiting or on their appeal, is what sort of was the cause of bankruptcy or death. But what we know is that this is what happened to people while they’re waiting and it’s truth. This is a population that has, you know, tremendous health challenges and they also tend to be very low income because you can’t qualify for benefits if you have much of any income. So what we found was that about 48,000 people or about 1.3% of those who appealed their claim filed for bankruptcy between 2014 and 2019. And we found this population was disproportionately older, female and had more than a high school education.

Jared Serbu: As you said there, are there multiple stages in the appeals process that people can choose to escalate to. Where does the main bottleneck seem to be in that process? I think there’s four stages if, there is a main bottleneck?

Elizabeth Curda: Yeah. I mean, there’s the initial claim that takes time to get a decision on that. And then there’s three sort of appeals levels after that. There is the reconsideration phase. There’s the hearing before an administrative law judge – that’s the next level of appeal. And then there’s the Appeals Council. The bottleneck, if you want to characterize it that way, is where the most of the wait time is at the hearing level before the administrative law judge. Those tend to take a long time to process, and it’s where they have historically had some challenges with wait times.

Jared Serbu: You did mention that there was an increase in wait times kind of correlated to the Great Recession and I would assume an increase in claims. I would have to assume there’s got to be something going on around COVID, too, just because of the economic effects of the pandemic, along with the fact that probably there is less resourcing at SSA. Does your work completely predate COVID? Or have you had any discussions with SSA about what kind of effects the pandemic might have on these issues that we’re talking about here?

Elizabeth Curda: Yes, all of our work predated the COVID crisis. Our data goes through 2019. And the COVID crisis didn’t really start having an impact here until the spring of 2020. As you can imagine, you know, I think a lot is left to be to be determined. We’re going to be continuing this work at SSA and we will be asking for 2020 data, and we will see what we can learn from that. We may see an impact there. However, the problem is sometimes it can take a couple years to see how things play out. So we’ll only see at the very front end of this, and we won’t necessarily see the many years of effects after that, which you might expect.

Jared Serbu: Sure. And going back to where we started just the trends in wait times overall, as you said, there was an increase that lagged by a couple years behind the Great Recession. And then I think SSA has actually made some progress against that in recent years, haven’t they?

Elizabeth Curda: That’s right, they have brought those average wait times down a good amount since the peak in about 2015. It’s hard to look at median wait times in the last couple of years because what happens is, those only represent people who have gotten the final decision and there’s still people waiting for their decision. So the numbers can’t really compare if they 2017 or 2018 to the 2015 numbers because it’s a little, it’s incomplete. We haven’t seen some of these claims play out.

Jared Serbu: Did you get into, with SSA at all, what kinds of things they’ve done to bring the numbers down?

Elizabeth Curda: No, we didn’t look at that for this report. They have a number of ongoing initiatives to try to bring the numbers down and they have had some some success in recent years and we’ve reported that in our high risk series.

Jared Serbu: That’s Elizabeth Curda, a director on GAO’s Education, Workforce and Income Security team. We’ll post a link to the report we’ve been discussing at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive.