A new study released by the government’s watchdog the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that long wait times for appeals for disability claims had disastrous impacts for those in need of disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Over 100,000 people died while waiting for their appeal, while roughly 50,000 had to file for bankruptcy.
The report comes at a time of “heightened risk” to “worsening medical and financial conditions,” the GAO says, for Americans living with disabilities due to the coronavirus pandemic. The report’s findings could indicate troubling times ahead for the millions who might need disability benefits.
Roughly 10 million people receive disability benefits, according to the SSA Annual Statistical Report. The majority of disability benefits went to disabled workers — 87% of all beneficiaries. In December of 2018, payments to disabled beneficiaries totaled almost $11.6 billion.
As part of this analysis the GAO examined wait times and outcomes during the fiscal years 2014 to 2019. They examined applicants for disability benefits who appealed Social Security Administration’s (SSA) decision to deny benefits or only partly award benefits they applied for. The study found that most people who filed an appeal “waited more than 1 year for a final decision on their claim.”
According to the analysis of SSA data, wait times spiked from 561 days on average in 2010 to nearly 840 days on average in 2015. The study says this wait time followed an increase of disability claims subsequent to the Great Recession, which could prove worrisome given the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Wait times have decreased in more recent years as SSA had made substantial progress in reducing the wait at the hearings level prior to the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic,” the study highlighted.
“For example, SSA reported that the average processing time for hearings decisions decreased from 605 days in fiscal year 2017 to 506 days in fiscal year 2019.”
According to the SSA, disability application denials have increased throughout the years. In 1999 the award rate was 56% — by 2017 it had declined to just under 29%.
But on appeal, applicants, especially ones with lawyers, do have a good shot of getting their original claim decision overturned. But it takes time, and money.
‘Consequences are dire’
It’s a frustrating process, says Economic Policy Institute Economist Monique Morrissey, whose expertise lies in retirement security and Social Security.
She says that claimants receiving benefits after appeal “isn’t necessarily a good thing,” because it highlights that most people should have received their benefits from the start.
“Their [SSA] M.O. is to say ‘no’ and tell you that you can appeal,” she said. “The process almost requires getting an advocate, if you can afford to get a lawyer.”
These benefits, Morrissey added, are “an absolutely critical safety net and they shouldn’t be doing that.”
What’s more, the wait times can be devastating for people desperately in need of their benefits immediately.
“In some cases, the wait is as long as 2 years — and they’re supposed to give you the back benefits. But that doesn’t help when you’ve been waiting for over 2 years for money that you need,” Morrissey said.
The GAO found that while people waited for their disability denial to be appealed, thousands were financially and medically devastated.
Nearly 50,000 people filed for bankruptcy between fiscal years 2014 and 2019 – roughly 1.3% of the more than 3.6 million people who filed appeals claims.
“The consequences are dire for people with lower income,” Morrissey said. “It’s disproportionately a high-poverty population. It’s a very vulnerable population.”
A June study published in the Journal of Disability Policy Studies found that those denied benefits have “a high rate of poor health, high levels of poverty, and limited earnings,” compared to the “general working population.”
What’s more, the GAO study found, nearly 45% of those who had to file for bankruptcy while waiting for their appeal were ultimately approved for benefits, highlighting the possibility that bankruptcy could have been avoided for more than 21,000 people.
And as tens of thousands had to file for bankruptcy while waiting for final decisions on their appeals for disability benefits, more than 100,000 saw their health decline.
From fiscal years 2008 to 2019, the watchdog agency found that nearly 110,000 people — or 1.2% of the 9 million people who filed an appeal — died while waiting for a final decision.
The GAO study notes that “for some applicants, a long wait time may have increased the potential risk of declining health or death prior to receiving a final benefits decision.”
‘Mental and physical health deteriorates’
For Morrissey, these outcomes are “tragic,” but not surprising.
“Poverty and financial instability cause stress,” she explained. “It’s not just mortality, it’s morbidity. Mental and physical health deteriorates with long wait times.”
Morrissey said she’s glad the GAO did this analysis, but that it “had to be requested,” highlighting what she describes as “misguided attention” on people who commit fraud and claim disability when they can work, instead of focusing on the many people who need benefits and are regularly denied.
The GAO report was requested by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. John Larson (D-CT).
Morrissey says that the results are “tragic” and will only get “more tragic” as the coronavirus pandemic drags on, because applications and denials spike during times of crisis.
“We are going to have another huge wave of applications, and the infrastructure has already been weakened,” she said, speaking of office closures and hearings with judges being done remotely.
And if the GAO’s findings are replicated in a post-COVID era, it means that thousands could be at risk for poor financial and medical outcomes in the future.
“It’s bad enough there’s a long time before you get access to benefits,” Morrissey said. “The longer the delay, the worse it is.”
Kristin Myers is a reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.