The next commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA) under the Trump administration will have to take on a tough challenge, apart from ensuring the financial health of the Social Security systems and maintaining the agency’s service levels.

 

This involves addressing a crisis in the Social Security disability program.

 

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program has the role of providing disability benefits to millions of Americans who are unable to earn a living due to disability. Anyone who meets the requirements for the program is eligible to claim his/her benefits. Claimants have dutifully made their Social Security payments when they were still employed, and this is one of SSA’s strict requirements.

 

However, many of these claimants have to wait for years before determining whether or not they are eligible for the claim. Social Security has been experiencing a backlog, which has been forcing applicants to wait for years. The Social Security Administration said it is already working to reduce lag times to acceptable levels, but this will take five years. So until after 2022, applicants will have to endure longer wait times.

 

This situation is said to be a consequence of lack of permanent leadership at the SSA, and this problem can only be addressed at the level of Congress and the Trump administration. So far, there hasn’t been a Senate-confirmed Social Security leader since Michael J. Astrue, whose term ended in 2013. Top executives in the agency are only interim officers and not confirmed.

 

The lack of strategic vision is the reason challenges like this arise. For example, Social Security disability applicants need to wait 110 days on average for the initial claim. Some of these claims may need to be reconsidered, which means applicants will need to wait another 103 days on average. Only about 12 percent of claims will be granted, and for this step, the waiting time will extend to as much as 583 days. By September this year, the holdup will increase to 605 days.

 

Unfortunately, only below half of Social Security disability applicants receive the benefits they are in desperate need of. According to the SSA, about 7,400 applicants did not live long enough to have a disability hearing. Since 2010, there are now about 1.1 million people who are waiting for a disability hearing from 705,000, a staggering increase of 58 percent.

 

Economic and political factors have played a major role in this problematic situation. The claims process has become more complex, and lawmakers are blaming fraud cases for imposing stricter rules. For instance, the program now requires unnecessary medical documents, which only prolongs the review process.

 

Budgets and hiring regulations have also tightened, which have brought about lack of qualified staff and judges to review the claims.

 

Astrue was able to reduce backlog and had been successful in 2012. But after the end of his term, no replacement was put in office. Soon enough, the backlog increased again.

 

One of the most effective ways of resolving this issue is to have a Senate-confirmed commissioner for Social Security. He/she will be in the best position to ensure that claimants get their most-deserved disability benefits.

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