It seemed like it would never happen. But after more than five years, a formal nomination of a Social Security commissioner will finally be considered by the U.S. Senate. This is a long overdue development. The delay of a nomination, however, pales compared to the wait a million Americans continue to endure for a hearing that will decide if they will receive the Social Security disability benefits they earned while working.
Andrew M. Saul, the Trump administration’s Social Security nominee, deserves a full and fair hearing in the Senate. But during his confirmation process, Mr. Saul should be questioned directly about how he plans to tackle the terrible 600-day Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) hearing backlog. This backlog, the longest in the federal government, has not significantly improved for more than five years running. In fact, it has worsened in many regions of the country. The agency projects it will be another four years before it can get the backlog under control.
SSDI is meant to be a safety net for former workers who are unable to work for 12 months or more due to severe injury or illness. The benefits are earned through years of working (and paid for through FICA payroll deductions) and should be there when individuals need those benefits most. But for nearly 1 million people, the program isn’t working as it should. These Americans have been denied their benefits and are now trapped in an appeals hearing-decision backlog that averages 20 months, according to the latest SSA statistics.
The lack of Senate-confirmed leadership for the Social Security Administration in the executive branch of government has certainly been a factor in the growth of this backlog. But it is not the only one. Although it has been bad for years, the backlog truly reached crisis level in 2017 when more than 10,000 individuals died (a 15 percent increase over the previous year) waiting to receive a hearing. This is an injustice that must be remedied under new leadership.
While waiting for a new commissioner, Congress allocated significant resources to fix the problem — $90 million in April 2017 and an additional $100 million this spring. Now, at his hearing, Mr. Saul should present his ideas for ensuring the funds are put to the best use to reduce the backlog.
The new commissioner has some opportunities for improving the process, policies and rules that now burden agency staff and claimants. These include reconsidering the value of disability determinations by other government entities such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, state agencies and private insurers when considering cases. These entities have disability criteria that are different from the Social Security Administration, but their programs are similar enough to jump start a decision.
Applicants, judges and Social Security staffers also are hindered by unneeded regulations. These include the requirement for massive claim files with duplicative medical evidence and the rejection of a claimant’s own doctors’ opinions in favor of Social Security’s own, paid reviewers.
The prospective commissioner should also consider restoring active use of so-called on-the-record (OTR) decisions that do not require in-person hearings and have been used to clear backlogs in the past. Quality OTR decisions can provide applicants with more certainty earlier in the process. What’s more, the consideration of claims can be based on length of time waiting for a hearing, dire need and severity of medical conditions.
A new, Senate-confirmed leader can provide a fresh start for a beleaguered agency and the weary constituency it serves. Mr. Saul will be presented with significant challenges, but if he takes the right steps, his leadership can make a world of difference for those individuals who have been waiting for benefits for far too long.
• Jim Allsup is chairman and CEO of Allsup Inc., a national disability representation organization and Social Security-authorized Employment Network based in Belleville, Ill.