The 1,200 field offices of the Social Security Administration (SSA) have been closed for the past 20 months, with devastating effects for disabled Americans. Before the pandemic, more than 43 million Americans were cared for at SSA field offices; Those most in need of walk-in and on-demand services included people with low or no income, unstable housing, limited English proficiency, or significant physical or mental disabilities that were themselves barriers to access. With office closures, your inability to file applications and appeals and to correct bureaucratic errors has led to historically unprecedented declines in people receiving disability benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income ( SSI).
In fiscal year (FY) 2021, SSA awards of SSDI benefits for people with disabilities and their family members decreased 25 percent from fiscal year 2019. SSI Disability awards, given to people without much work history, fell further, down 30 percent.
Had SSI awards continued at the pre-pandemic level, there would have been 280,000 more SSI awards in the last two fiscal years. In fiscal year 2017-2019 pre-pandemic years, SSDI awards declined only modestly; Had that trend continued, there would have been 270,000 more SSDI awards in the last two fiscal years.
Even taking into account the fact that some SSI recipients what’s more receiving SSDI, these figures suggest that the operational difficulties SSA has faced since the pandemic began have resulted in an estimated 500,000 fewer Americans receiving disability benefits.
The SSA admits that this decline in awards is a major problem, and its own internal analisis shows the alarming effects of field office closures. Just one month after the field offices closed in March 2020, SSI applications from retirement-age adults, disabled adults, and parents of disabled children decreased, respectively, by 55 percent, 32 percent, and 51 percent. percent in relation to the previous year’s figures.
The award decline has continued through the current period. SSDI and SSI awards for September 2021 decreased 34 and 42 percent, respectively, from the September 2019 figures.
SSI and SSDI beneficiaries are financially vulnerable and racially diverse group. The fact that 500,000 disabled Americans have been left behind is shocking and should spark serious discussion about affirmative corrective actions by the agency that are also consistent with President BidenJoe Biden US Bishops To Consider Whether Biden Should Receive Communion Barrels Of Congress Towards Year-End Clash Biden Turns On Former New Orleans Mayor Landrieu To Lead Infrastructure MORE‘s Executive order on “Promoting Racial Equity and Supporting Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.”
SSA, with input from the White House, is finalizing plans for a partial reopening of its field offices in January. The reopening plan will combine remote work and office staffing. This is a critical step, but simply opening office doors will be woefully inadequate without a panoply of other measures.
As part of its planned reopenings, SSA must prioritize resources in the areas with the largest declines in SSI applications and awards and in field offices serving the largest low-income population areas. Hours could be extended into late afternoon and evening Monday through Friday and Saturday (like the US Post Office).
It is essential that the reopening of the office allows walk-in service. Many current or potential SSI recipients lack reliable Internet access or have limited minutes available for their phones. This is especially the case for older beneficiaries. They will face barriers to accessing an appointment-only service system, so a same-day walk-in service must be provided to assist these beneficiaries.
To avoid a flood of frustrated applicants, SSA also needs a major overhaul of its application processes, which currently include a 23-page SSI application that may be incomprehensible even to social service professionals. You should also address the prolonged absence of an online application for all SSI applicants. The SSA also has very limited criteria for simplified eligibility determinations for individuals who clearly have significant disabilities. These “presumed” disability rules should be expanded, for example, to provide allowances for people who are homeless and have significant behavioral health diagnoses.
The SSA must also take steps to mitigate the harm that people have experienced due to prolonged office closures. SSI recipients have had difficulty contacting the SSA to report changes in income and resources. The months of work stoppage due to the pandemic and the failure to enforce income and resource exemptions led to large numbers of no-fault overpayments. A simplified no-fault overpayment waiver was created, but people were never told it existed. Debt collection actions resulting from SSA for SSI recipients who were not at fault, and who do not have the ability to make payments, are unjustified punishment. These punitive debt collection policies, enacted during the Trump administration, are the subject of a national class action lawsuit. litigation, Campos v. Maid That case must be resolved, with overpayments and recoveries ceasing.
The SSA has other tools at its disposal to reverse the damage from the pandemic. Equitable and corrective measures could also include:
- Maintain an expansive good cause for missed deadlines and listen to layoffs, and publicize the good cause clearly through multiple channels.
- Issue guidelines that disability reviewers should not penalize applicants for lack of treatment or school records since the pandemic began.
- Dedicate funds to third party assistance (“navigators”) to help SSI applicants through the minefield red tape and appeal processes.
- Shift resources from lower priority areas, such as disability case reviews of existing beneficiaries, to expand essential services for applicants and outreach.
Last but certainly not least: It has been 11 months since the current administration and a Social Security Commissioner has yet to be nominated. Many of the necessary changes to SSA policies and personnel can only be made by a commissioner confirmed by the Senate, and time to act before the next election is running out.
The SSA, and the federal government as a whole, must recognize that the SSA has been through an unprecedented crisis that has denied hundreds of thousands of people with disabilities basic income support, as well as access to accompanying health insurance. SSI and SSDI benefits.
Business as usual, even resumed after almost two years, will not be enough to repair these damages.
SSA’s top priority should be ensuring that all eligible individuals receive SSI and SSDI immediately, including the 500,000 who were left behind during the pandemic.
Jonathan Stein was General Counsel at Community Legal Services, Philadelphia, where he is now Of Counsel.
David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is a retired federal economist and employee who has written a number of studies on the Social Security program. The opinions in this article do not reflect the opinions of any federal agency.