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Why is the SSD case backlog so large?

When a person suffers a serious injury, or is diagnosed with a serious physical or mental condition that makes it impossible to work despite their best efforts, they may seek to secure disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

On paper, this process works in a fairly straightforward manner.

As a first step, they fill out an initial application setting forth their condition and informing agency officials how to access their medical records. From here, state officials, hired by the SSA, proceed to analyze both the application and medical records, perhaps even ordering an examination by an independent physician. A final decision on disability is then issued.

Statistics show that roughly 32 percent of initial applications are approved for disability benefits and that each decision takes an average of 109 days. Currently, there are close to 633,000 cases pending in this initial timeframe, an amount classified by the SSA as "no backlog at all."

Applicants have the option of appealing this initial decision via a process known as reconsideration. This will essentially involve another official analyzing the initial rejection of disability benefits, and either affirming or reversing this decision.

Statistics show that only about 11 percent of applications are approved for disability benefits via reconsideration and that each decision takes an average of 107 days. Currently, there are close to 170,000 cases pending in this secondary timeframe.

As the next step, disability applicants have the option of appealing this second rejection in a hearing held before a Social Security Judge. Here, the judge will read through medical records, ask questions about conditions and work limitations, and issue a final decision.

This may prove to be a daunting proposition, however, as recent reports show that the backlog at this level is now at an astounding 990,399 cases, and that each decision now takes an average of well over a year.

To put this in perspective, consider the following:

  • The case backlog faced by Social Security judges has existed since at least 1975.
  • The next biggest case backlogs within the federal infrastructure are at Veterans Affairs -- 526,000 cases -- and the Patent and Trademark Office -- 606,000 cases.

In our next post, we will take a closer look at why this substantial case backlog exists and what solutions are being offered to help reduce it.

Source: The Washington Post, "The biggest backlog in the federal government," David Fahrenthold, Oct. 18, 2014

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