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The Social Security Administration in the Climate of a Financial Crisis

Last year, the Social Security backlog was at about 750,000 claims. Commissioner Astrue has said that due to the current state of the economy, disability claims have increased by about 10 percent, which means about 250,000 additional cases will be added to the backlog. This is an increase the at the Agency neither projected or budgeted for, so the backlog will inevitably continue to grow. Astrue commented that despite the increase in cases that the Administration will face, they will not be able to hire more staff because they are operating on a resolution through March which provides funding at the fiscal 2008 levels. Astrue commented that "help is already too late…the tidal wave is hitting us, and we don't have the money to staff up appropriately."

The backlog has been a major problem for SSA over the last several years, and the source of many complaints associated with this Administration. During the last seven years, processing times for disability hearings increased by 200 days, making the most vulnerable and ill Americans wait even longer for their much needed assistance. In 2008, there was some leveling off of the backlog, but with the increase in hearing requests due to our current economic crisis, things will probably slow down again.

Currently, there is a $819 billion stimulus package that Congress is debating, and $500 million would be designated for SSA for fiscal 2009 and 2010 to specifically address the growing backlog.

The agency is again planning to use their funds to hire more judges. Last year, the hiring of more judges faced stark criticism because additional staff was not hired to assist these judges in getting cases heard and decisions written. This fiscal year, the agency plans to not only hire up to 155 additional judges, but also dedicate part of the $500 million stimulus package to hire additional support staff.

Though things seem to be set up for success for 2010, this year the turn around on cases will probably continue to suffer. Because the new judges will first need to go through an intensive hiring proceeds and then get trained, they won’t be able to start helping with the backlog until about 2010. As far as staff to help with processing the cases, the current staff to judge ratio is 4.4 staff members to every judge. With the stimulus packages, this ratio is expected to increase to 4.6 staff members per judge. Hopefully this minor increase will be sufficient to make strides in reducing the backlog.

The fact of the matter is that SSA has discussed and put into play many programs to combat their backlog, some much more successful than others. With the hiring of new judges last year, there was some “leveling off” of the backlog according to Astrue. However, the innovative Quick Disability Determination and Compassionate Allowances Program didn’t end up being the saving grace that many had hoped for.

The Quick Disability Determination program is in essence a screening tool that identifies claims with a high likelihood for a favorable disability finding. The Compassionate Allowances system expedites the cases of claimants with severe medical conditions that by definition, already meet the strict SSA standards for disability. Both of them only fast tracked 2.7 percent of the total cases in 2008, and they are expected to fast track 4 percent of the cases this year. This percent seems quite small when compared to the total number of dollars spend on the technology and staff utilized to make these projects work.

Overall, the financial crisis has resulted in even heavier volume of new cases and in turn has added to the ever-increasing backlog for Social Security. Though innovative ideas have been proposed, none seem to be working with the effectiveness as the simple hiring of more judges and staff. In the next year, we will be able to see how well the stimulus package for SSA is utilized, and hopefully the increased funding will enable this agency to get caught up in their backlog of claims. 

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