Excessive hold-times and administrative delays consistently rank at the top of the list among our members when it comes to annoyances in working with the SSA. But we also know it is far more than an annoyance. The SSA’s inability to address the very real problem of these delays has a tangible impact on our ability to serve our clients, which ultimately hurts them in myriad ways.
We have been raising this issue in our work with the administration, and we are not the only ones raising the alarm. The AARP recently published a thoughtful, comprehensive story highlighting extended SSA wait times and the human cost of systemic inefficiencies. AARP cited two of our NOSSCR members – John Heard and Chris Doherty – as experts and advocates on behalf of claimants:
Ever-longer waits for decisions on disability benefits are just one facet of Social Security’s customer-service crisis. People calling the SSA’s national help line are waiting on hold for nearly 36 minutes, on average, to get answers to routine questions.
In the late 2010s, it typically took the Social Security Administration (SSA) 110 to 120 days to process an initial application for disability benefits, according to agency data. In December, the average wait was 228 days, or more than seven months.
The average wait for a reconsideration by the SSA, the first step in appealing a denied claim, is seven months. If reconsideration is denied, It takes another 15 months on average to get to the next step, a hearing before a Social Security administrative law judge, the stage at which Jose finally won approval.
In one sense, at least, he was lucky. According to federal data, about 10,000 people die each year while their applications for disability benefits are grinding through the system.
“I’ve been doing this since 1976 and it’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” says John Heard, a San Antonio attorney and former president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, a membership group for lawyers and professional advocates who focus on disability cases.
Those who have worked within the system for decades say there have always been delays, especially at the hearing level. But in recent years, everyone who files a claim is feeling the pain.
“We’ve seen a tremendous increase in the time it’s taking at the lower levels over the last two or three years,” says Chris Doherty, an attorney in Beverly, Massachusetts, who has practiced disability law more than 30 years. “The extraordinary levels of delay are affecting everybody, because everybody who applies is experiencing them.”
The delays are part of a larger crisis in customer service in the wake of the pandemic, which shut down Social Security offices to most in-person business for more than two years and saw the agency’s workforce shrink to its lowest level in a quarter-century, leaving those most in need in a prolonged state of uncertainty.
NOSSCR will continue to engage with SSA to work toward lasting systemic change.