Challenges in Store For Next SSA Commissioner, Allsup Reports

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Improvements in SSDI wait times at risk in face of budget cuts and expanded workloads

Significant resource and demographic pressures threaten to undo progress toward reducing the time claimants spend waiting to receive their Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, according to Allsup.

President Barack Obama’s second term coincides with the expiration of Social Security Administration (SSA) Commissioner Michael Astrue’s six-year appointment. The next SSA commissioner will arrive at a difficult time for the federal agency. Significant resource and demographic pressures threaten to undo progress made toward reducing the time claimants spend waiting to receive their Social Security Disability Insurance(SSDI) benefits, according to Allsup, a nationwide provider of SSDI representation and Medicare plan selection services.

Under Astrue, who departed earlier this month, SSA cut the average time disability claimants waited for a hearing decision nationally by one-third, from an all-time high of 532 days in August 2008 to 354 days in April 2012. The new Compassionate Allowances program expedited medical determinations for thousands of individuals with rare or severe conditions, fast-tracking the process for nearly 6 percent of applicants.

“The next appointed SSA commissioner will have some immediate priorities,” said Jim Allsup, founder and CEO of Allsup. “We need to take a fresh look—for the near term and the long term—at the entire SSDI system to ensure that it can meet the needs of deserving individuals with disabilities over the long haul.”

As a nationwide SSDI representation company, Allsup is engaged annually with tens of thousands of applicants and thousands of SSA workers and administrative law judges across the country. From this experience, Allsup calls out a number of top priorities for the next SSA commissioner:

1.    Disability Insurance Trust Fund. The DI Trust Fund is projected to exhaust its reserves in 2016, which aligns with program estimates when Trust Fund allocations were last examined in 1994. The Trust Fund has been in jeopardy numerous times, and in each case Congress has shifted funds to accommodate the needs of the retirement and disability programs. The new commissioner needs to support lawmakers in continuing to focus on improving the fiscal integrity of the program, including increased funding for initiatives that address accuracy of payments, reducing overpayments and eliminating benefits for those fraudulently receiving benefits.

2.    Continuing Disability Review (CDR) backlog. SSA is required to conduct periodic reviews to determine if existing beneficiaries should continue receiving benefits. Resource constraints contributed to SSA’s backlog of more than 1.5 million medical CDRs in FY2010. SSA’s Office of the Inspector General estimated that clearing the CDR backlog would save $15.8 billion in improperly paid lifetime federal benefits.

3.    Streamlining and improving the professional relationship with third-party representatives. Expert disability representatives help guide applicants through a government approval process, comply with rules and laws, and receive benefits they deserve. Two-thirds of SSDI applicants are denied benefits when they initially apply. By the time applicants reach the hearing level, about 80 percent have professional help. Similar to how tax preparers participate in IRS procedures and support taxpayers, SSDI representatives can help address the overwhelming administrative workload facing SSA.

4.    Redesigning and funding back-to-work programs. SSA’s return-to-work incentives and Ticket to Work program have helped SSDI recipients who attempt a return to the workforce, ensuring their disability benefits are protected if their work effort fails. As of June 30, 2012, funding was discontinued for organizations in the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) program. The opportunity remains to redesign incentives and restore funding to help individuals receiving SSDI transition back into the workforce if their conditions improve. A key component of a successful return-to-work program may include aligning the SSDI application process more closely with these programs. Currently, claimants are encouraged to participate in the Ticket to Work program only after they have completed a lengthy wait and received their benefits.

“Debate about the Disability Insurance Trust Fund and system reform continues to heat up,” Allsup said. “We need to understand that these are very complex issues, and the challenges the new commissioner faces and solutions he or she proposes, have a real impact on those with disabilities. We can’t simply abandon deserving claimants who paid for their benefits when they were able to work.”

SSDI is a federally mandated disability insurance program overseen by the SSA that operates separately from the retirement and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs. SSDI provides monthly benefits to individuals who are under full retirement age (age 65 or older) and who can no longer work because of a severe disability expected to last for more than 12 months or is terminal. Individuals pay for this federal insurance coverage through their FICA payroll taxes.

The average age of a beneficiary is 53, with men and women almost equally represented. The average monthly benefit was $1,130 in January 2013. The SSDI application process has up to five stages. In FY 2012, average wait times for claimants were 102 days at the initial application, 353 days at the hearing level, and 393 days at the Appeals Council.

For more information about Social Security Disability Insurance eligibility, contact Allsup’s Disability Evaluation Center at (800) 678-3276.

Allsup is a nationwide provider of Social Security disability, veterans disability appeal, Medicare and Medicare Secondary Payer compliance services for individuals, employers and insurance carriers. Founded in 1984, Allsup employs more than 800 professionals who deliver specialized services supporting people with disabilities and seniors so they may lead lives that are as financially secure and as healthy as possible. The company is based in Belleville, Ill., near St. Louis. For more information, go to or visit Allsup on Facebook at

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