If you need help filing for Social Security, Medicare or disability benefits, I have good news and bad news.
The good news: The sprawling network of more than 1,200 Social Security field offices around the United States will reopen to the public in early April after a two-year COVID-19 shutdown. During that time, nearly all public service has been available only online, and by phone and mail. Millions of Americans who need in-person help from the agency can now start to get it.
The bad news: The Social Security Administration (SSA) is bracing for a crush of office visitors. Along with the pent-up demand created by the long shutdown, the agency’s national toll-free number has been experiencing problems, with some callers getting busy signals or abrupt disconnections, which an SSA spokesman confirmed. The phone system problems are expected to increase demand further in the initial weeks of the reopening.
Most retirement and Medicare claims have been processed normally during the shutdown, but the systems for SSDI and SSI claims have been clogged. At the end of January, 974,000 claims were pending at the level of initial filing and the first level of appeal, according to agency data.
Those statistics point to dire circumstances for a large number of low-income and disabled Americans, notes Stacy Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, a specialized bar association for attorneys and advocates.
“People are dying waiting for decisions, going into debt, or they’re unable to access medical care” she said.
Part of the problem is application processing delays at the state level. The SSA sends disability applications to state agencies, which make medical determinations of eligibility. The largest backlog is in Florida, which had 92,525 cases awaiting determination at the end of January; Texas, California, New York state and Georgia also had large backlogs, according to agency data.
The SSA funds these state-level determinations, so the agency’s broader budget crunch has played a role in the backlogs, according to Cloyd.