NEWS: Sanders, Larson Call for Strengthening Social Security After GAO Report Series Shows Harmful Delays in Disability Appeals

SSA agreed with GAO recommendations for improving process following report commissioned by Sen. Sanders and Rep. Larson

WASHINGTON, July 18 – A study released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows significant inconsistencies in the expedited appeals process for Social Security disability benefits, raising concerns that individuals facing homelessness or other emergencies may have faced dangerously long delays in their appeals hearings. Cases that fail to qualify for fast tracking regularly wait more than a year or years for a hearing. Today’s announcement follows up on a major 2020 GAO report that showed almost 110,000 people died while awaiting a final decision on their disability appeal from 2008 to 2019, and about 48,000 people filed for bankruptcy while waiting from 2014 to 2019.

Both reports were commissioned by Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-Conn.).

“It is absolutely unacceptable that thousands of Americans suffer and die every year waiting for a final decision to get the modest Social Security benefits they need to survive,” said Sen. Sanders. “In the richest country in the history of the world, every eligible American must be able to receive all of the Social Security benefits they have earned on time and without delay. Our job now is to strengthen Social Security and make the filing process easier so that people with disabilities are not left waiting for months and years on end for the benefits they desperately need.”

“Americans pay for Social Security with every paycheck, and for severely disabled workers and their families, timely access to its modest benefits can be the difference between survival and disaster. It is unconscionable that thousands of people are dying or filing for bankruptcy while awaiting a final decision on their disability benefit claim. At a recent Social Security Subcommittee hearing, we heard about the agency’s urgent need for more staff and resources to reduce these unacceptable delays. I’m proud to support the work of the House Appropriations Committee which is recommending a major increase in Social Security’s operating budget to strengthen customer service for all Americans,” said Rep. Larson.

Following publication of the earlier report, Sanders and Larson asked the GAO to further examine whether the most critical cases were properly expedited. The 2022 study released today found that the Social Security Administration (SSA) expedited most critical cases, but inconsistent policy implementation is leaving major gaps and barriers for people trying to access their benefits. For example, staff from three of the five selected SSA offices interviewed for the report said claimants must provide documentation of their dire financial need to qualify for expediting. However, in reality this is not required under SSA policy. The report also found that only 28.5 percent of cases where an applicant was previously identified as facing homelessness were later flagged by a hearing office to be fast-tracked. As a result, many claimants who qualify for expedited claim processing due to severe circumstances may not receive it.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is critical to Americans who can no longer work substantially because of a medical condition. Nearly 10 million disabled Americans and their dependents survive on a monthly benefit that averages only $1,229 for SSDI. The maximum monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit is only $841. However, to claim these modest benefits, the U.S. has some of the most stringent eligibility requirements in the world.

GAO makes two recommendations in the 2022 report: that the SSA (1) review the use of documentation of dire needs situations for consistency and (2) examine its handling of cases that indicate homelessness, eviction, or other critical need, to ensure these are expedited in accordance with policy. The SSA agreed with these GAO recommendations.

Read the report here.