Washington, D.C – Yesterday, NOSSCR’s Director of Government Affairs, Lisa Ekman, was invited to testify before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security on the challenges facing the Social Security Administration. The hearing titled, “Hearing on Determining Eligibility for Disability Benefits: Challenges Facing the Social Security Administration,” focused on solutions for reducing the hearing backlog and wait times.
Video of the hearing and the witnesses’ written testimony are available HERE
Lisa’s opening remarks as prepared for delivery are below:
Good morning. Chairman Johnson, Ranking Member Larson and members of the Subcommittee. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Lisa Ekman and I am the director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives or NOSSCR. I am testifying today on behalf of the Co-Chairs of the Social Security Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities or CCD.
The Social Security disability programs provide modest but vital benefits to millions of people with disabilities so severe they are unable to perform substantial work, many of whom would live in abject poverty and be homeless without them. Unfortunately, it took an average of 628 days for people who received an eligibility determination from an ALJ during the month of July to get access to these vital benefits.
That wait time, which is far too long, is due in large part to chronic underfunding of the SSA administrative budget since 2010. Prior to 2010, Congress invested resources in SSA and SSA had been bringing wait times down. SSA has shown what it can do with adequate resources.
Having to wait that long for a hearing can have devastating consequences for the individual and his or her family – some people lose their homes, declare bankruptcy, and some even die. Here is one such story:
PS was a resident of McKinney, Texas.
She led a comfortable upper middle-class life while working as a property manager and inspector.
However, she developed a number of conditions including chronic pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, cervical spondylosis, thoracic and lumbar spine pain, migraine headaches, intracranial hypotension, and fibromuscular dysplasia. This was followed by ever-increasing depression and anxiety, especially after she could no longer work.
She tried every treatment doctors offered to reduce her pain and allow her to continue working. But by 2009, she could no longer work. She waited a long time for a hearing- finally scheduled in January 2016 but she faced a terrible choice – miss an appointment for a test that might identify a treatment to alleviate her pain that took months to schedule or postpone her hearing. The hearing was postponed and rescheduled for April 2016, but unfortunately Ms. S committed suicide several weeks before it was held. She was 45 years old. She received a posthumous fully favorable decision. Her 15 year old son now receives survivor’s benefits.
My written testimony contains many other stories collected from claimants’ representatives from all over the United States which highlight the hardships and pain inflicted on individuals with disabilities when forced to wait many months or even years for a hearing on their claim.
These heartbreaking stories are unfortunately becoming more common place. During fiscal year 2016, 8,700 individuals died while waiting for a hearing before an ALJ – that’s about one every hour.
The hearing backlog must be addressed. The Social Security Task Force respectfully recommends the following actions for Congress and SSA to consider:
- Congress should provide SSA with adequate funding to administer the Social Security old age, survivors and disability programs. Only sustained adequate funding will allow SSA to reduce the time it takes to get a disability determination from an ALJ without negatively impacting customer service in its other core functions.
- The Task Force appreciates the backlog reduction efforts SSA is making within its inadequate budget and the CARES plan contains some promising initiatives but more should be done to assist the nearly 1.1 million people facing this daunting wait.
- SSA should do more to ensure a hearing is only held when necessary.
- First, SSA needs to do a better job of collecting full medical evidence at the initial application and reconsideration levels, to ensure the initial decision is made on as complete an evidentiary record as possible.
- Second, SSA should resume a robust program of reviewing claims for on the record decisions – cases where recent evidence clearly shows eligibility without requiring a hearing. I understand this is part of the CARES plan, but the attorneys who would conduct these reviews are not doing them because they have been pulled into addressing another backlog – that of writing up the decisions made by ALJs at the hearings. This is yet another example of the consequences of inadequate funding.
- Third, Congress can assist SSA to get the decision right the first time by facilitating more reviews of DDS denials, to ensure that these decisions are correct and prevent the need to appeal. SSA should be permitted to use its dedicated program integrity funds for these targeted denial reviews, and to increase the number of reviews done.
- Finally, SSA should consider revising some recently finalized regulations the Task Force believes harm applicants who are otherwise eligible for benefits and will lead to increased appeals, including to federal court. These include a controversial rule regarding the evaluation of medical evidence. The relationship between a person and their treating provider is unique and the opinions of treating providers deserve more weight than the opinion of someone who either examines an individual once or only reviews the claims file. By equalizing the weight given to treating sources and someone who may never have examined the individual, this rule hurts claimants by devaluing the evidence received from treating sources with longitudinal knowledge of the claimant. The elimination of the treating physician rule is likely to lead to more appeals, more remands, and more delays as a result.
Thank you again for the opportunity to testify today and I am happy to answer any questions you might have.