COVID-forced closures have decimated many facets of our lives and businesses. One far-reaching example is the Social Security disability program. If you’re applying for disability benefits, you need to know the harsh realities of the backlogs and wait times you will face, and what you can do about them.
If you have a claim at any stage of the process, don’t give up! Understanding the process and being represented by a qualified disability attorney will help you prevail. What follows is a summary of the current state of the Social Security disability backlogs and wait times, and steps that will help you take control of the situation, so you receive the benefits you deserve.
March 17, 2020 – SSA Closes Field Offices
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the U.S. in early 2020, the Social Security Administration (SSA) shut down more than 1,200 field offices.
Almost immediately, every field office – local offices for millions of people doing business in person with the SSA – began working remotely, via phone, mail, or virtually. In-person appointments were available for “dire need” cases only. Some tasks were suspended altogether.
April 7, 2022 – SSA Reopens Field Offices
For many years, we have watched the SSA work to eliminate a staggering backlog of disability applications and appeals of claim denials, and to improve processing times. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, our disability law firm has made a point of keeping clients and the public informed. Unfortunately, progress made in past years has been wiped away by the pandemic shutdown, and new issues have surfaced.
Now it’s spring of 2022. We are seeing frustrations grow as Social Security field offices across the country finally reopen their doors to a public who may not understand the odds they’re up against.
The void of in-person services has only expanded SSA’s vast backlog.
Statistics show that new claims for disability benefits declined during the Covid outbreak. This is because our most vulnerable citizens rely heavily on in-person services. Many who are physically or mentally disabled, the elderly, and those with few resources are often very limited in their ability to communicate virtually, by phone, submit information online, or send faxes to the SSA.
But as new cases were lower during the pandemic, SSA’s stack of pending cases rose dramatically. In its Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Requestto Congress, the SSA reported that:
- SSA’s backlog of initial disability cases grew to over 798,000 through February 2022, compared to 594,000 in September 2019, and
- Year-to-date wait times on claim decisions (through February 2022) are 173 days compared to 120 days in September 2019.
Couple that with the long-term disabling effects COVID-19 has had on many who contracted it, such as lung scarring, heart damage, and neurological and mental health effects. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states, the SSA will need to deal with these complex new COVID-based disability claims plus any delayed claims from people who otherwise would have received benefits during the past two years.
It should be noted, most retirement and Medicare claims have been processed normally during the shutdown. It is mainly the SSDI and SSI claims systems that have been clogged with waits and service delays.
The underlying fact is that processing times and backlogs for disability claims have grown tremendously. For example, the average processing time for initial disability claims increased 46 percent (from 95.5 days to 139.4 days) during the pandemic, according to the SSA Office of the Inspector General.
These delays cause significant hardships for potential beneficiaries. The long-term fallout will likely disrupt millions of claims and awards, including:
- Severe delays and reduction in approvals of SSDI and SSI applications and appeals;
- Difficulties for seniors in rural areas and others who may not have a reliable telephone or internet access;
- Increases in ALJ hearings as the agency takes on increased disability applications.
Shutdown Triggers New Backlog
During the shutdown, SSA suspended certain “non-essential” work causing new backlogs. For example, continuing disability reviews (CDRs) to determine whether disability beneficiaries are still eligible for benefits were shelved during the pandemic. SSA must administer CDRs on a certain schedule, meaning there is now a new backlog to add to the mix.
To fix all of the problems, the agency plans to replace DDS staff losses and add additional hires, employ more ALJs, implement overtime work hours, and apply new technologies and telework plans. Even if all goes to plan, it will take many years to eliminate the backlog and return wait times to pre-pandemic levels
What Can a Disability Claimant Do?
An experienced disability lawyer fighting for you can make all the difference in getting your SSDI claim approved in the shortest possible time.
Even in the best of times, applying for benefits or appealing a denial can be immensely complex as well as physically and mentally exhausting. Less than one of every three claims not represented by a lawyer succeeds in being approved. With skilled legal counsel, the number of successful Social Security disability claims doubles.
Many applications are denied because the claimant did not provide the necessary records and documentation. Most people have no idea how to evaluate their medical records, or what questions to ask their doctor. They don’t know what an examiner or a judge is really looking for with a particular medical condition, or how to fully prepare a disability case for a hearing.
Ten Ways We Help Our Clients Win Benefits
At the law firm of Whitehead & Associates, we take care of everything for you. Founding partner Marc Whitehead is Board Certified in Social Security Disability Law by the National Board of Social Security Disability Advocacy. We handle cases from the initial application stage through administrative hearings and federal court.
Below are just some of the steps we take to help you win your disability claim.
- We keep you informed. Your dedicated legal team will make it easy for you to stay informed throughout your Social Security disability case.
- Preparation. We assemble all evidence necessary to prove you have the impairments you claim to have. We make sure all evidence is thorough and appropriate – medical treatment records, physician’s statements, missing medical evidence, vocational assessments, daily journals, and witness statements from family, friends, and co-workers.
- Medical collaboration. We work very closely with your doctors to help you get the medical documentation you need. It is critical that your doctor’s records and statements specifically support your case. Plus, Social Security disability examiners and administrative law judges (ALJs) are looking for specific terminology and treatment records; without this evidence, your claim stands little chance of approval.
- Functional/vocational collaboration: We work with occupational and vocational experts to obtain decisive expert opinions regarding your physical and mental functional limitations.
- Medical-vocational allowance. Most Social Security Disability claims that are approved for benefits do not meet the tough medical criteria listed in the SSA’s medical Listing of Impairments. Instead, they are approved on SSA’s medical-vocational allowance. To this end, we develop evidence regarding your “Residual Functional Capacity” which is the key to your disability claim. The point is that every claim must be fully prepared with sufficient medical records, the necessary input from your doctors, and appropriate vocational evidence – which together prove that you are unable to function in the workplace.
- Special help for the disabled over 50. The SSA treats individuals who are older than 50 according to a special set of rules. An experienced Social Security disability lawyer can use these rules to help win a disability case.
- Medical conditions. Our disability attorneys are knowledgeable of disabling medical conditions and know how to connect the dots from condition to proving disability. We apply the current science and technology to build the details of your case. [Link to the landing page for Disabling Conditions]
- We represent you at the ALJ hearingif one is required. This includes meeting with you before your hearing to prepare your testimony and preparing you to tell your story to the judge. At the ALJ hearing, you and your attorney have a chance to submit new evidence, call expert witnesses to testify on your behalf, and cross-examine the experts who made the original recommendations to deny your claim. We follow up after the hearing to make sure your benefits are paid correctly. [Link to article: ALJ Hearing – What to Expect, How to Prepare for Your Disability Hearing]
- Appeals Council and Federal court appeals. If the ALJ upholds the original denial of benefits, there are two more steps in the Social Security Disability appeals process: an Appeals Council Review, followed by an appeal hearing in a Federal district court. Our disability attorneys represent clients at every step of the SSA disability appeal process.
- Our reputation. With 30 years of helping claimants, we are known and respected for excellent communication with the Social Security Administration.
Get Your Life Back Today
For decades Marc Whitehead & Associates have helped people across the country file, appeal, and receive the Social Security Disability benefits they deserve. We answer every call. If you are disabled and can no longer work, contact our law office or call (800) 562-9830 to speak with us today.