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Social Security Faces Backlog of 1 Million Disability Applications

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Persistent funding shortfalls, an aging population, and a shrinking workforce have created the worst of all, with significant delays in processing applications for Social Security disability benefits.

“The pandemic combined with high attrition has created a backlog. Pending initial disability claims are now in excess of 1 million,” said Social Security at a forum hosted by the Urban Institute on April 11. Kiroro Kijakazi, Deputy Commissioner of the Agency (SSA) said.

She spoke about the challenges of running an agency of nearly 60,000 employees that oversees retirement and disability benefits for more than 70 million Americans.

“For more than a decade, SSA has not received sufficient funding from Congress to manage its program, resulting in a recruitment freeze,” Kijakazi said. “At the same time, the number of Social Security beneficiaries was increasing.”

In 2022, the workforce has reached its lowest point. According to data provided by Kijakazi, the number of beneficiaries was at an all-time high, but 25 years have passed. Agencies are struggling to keep up with demand, and many who have struggled to complete their 20-page Social Security Disability Insurance applications now have to wait five months or more for a decision.

To address the backlog, Kijakaji has implemented several strategies and hopes to see improvements this year. But more funding is needed to fully solve the problem, she said.

Kijakazi has created a special team to deal with the backlog. It used analytics to identify bottlenecks in the decision process and created a team of claims adjudicators, attorneys within SSA, to participate in the states with the most outstanding claims. Create a team of SSA employees who have been assigned to help conduct disability hearings and who have retired to provide special assistance.

Kijakazi argues that these measures alone will not solve the problem. That depends on hiring more full-time employees, which depends on additional funding provided by Congress.

The agency operates on a budget of $1.4 trillion. Its budget was increased by $785 million this year, but the increase was only about half of what was requested, most of which went to fixed costs, he said.

“While the funding received in fiscal year 2023 will help us maintain our current service levels, it will not be sufficient to make the improvements we were hoping for.” Others could do worse.

“We need President Biden’s $15.5 billion budget request for fiscal year 2024 to improve our services,” Kijakazi said. The increase will allow the agency to not only make positions hired during the current year permanent, but also improve its IT systems and automated services, she said.

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