The number of backlogged disability claims at the Social Security Administration (SSA) more than doubled over the past decade, with those pending at the hearing level reaching 760,800 as of October 2008, according to an agency spokesman. The spike in applicants from an aging baby boomer generation, staff cuts, and management problems all contributed to a cumbersome operation; individual cases took an average of more than 500 days to process in 2007. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people pursuing disability claims have been forced to wait as long as three years, with some going into bankruptcy, losing their homes, or even dying while waiting for a result. As far back as 2001, the chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board acknowledged that “unless there’s fundamental change, we will soon see disruptions of service. The Social Security agency lacks the ability to handle existing workloads, and those workloads are bound to increase in the next decade.” The situation continued to deteriorate, despite continuous warnings and recommendations for improvement from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), especially in regard to issues with the SSA’s electronic claims processing system.
A lack of funding compounded the problem; Congress appropriated an average of $150 million less for the agency than the Bush administration requested between fiscal years 2001 and 2007, while giving the agency a heavier workload. In an attempt to reform the system, the agency introduced its so-called Disability Service Improvement in 2006, but the GAO found that poor management, rushed rollout, and short staffing ultimately stunted the initiative, resulting in additional costs. Finally, in May 2007, Michael Astrue, the Social Security commissioner, appealed to Congress for additional funding to refine the disability program’s electronic systems and hire more judges to hear cases.
Congress appropriated $150 million more to SSA than President Bush requested for fiscal year 2008. As a result, the agency was able to hire 190 new disability judges, open the National Hearing Center, eliminate more than 135,000 cases from its backlog, and implement a streamlined disability determination process.. The backlog total grew by 14,000 cases in FY 2008, but that was far less than the recent average growth of 70,000 cases a year. Additional money remains critical for continued success. As Commissioner Astrue pointed out in October 2008, “Many things we need to do, such as increase support staff and add new hearing offices, will not happen if Congress fails to pass an adequate appropriations bill by March.”