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Wait times for Social Security disability benefit decisions reach new high

Applicants now wait over seven months for a decision on an initial application, up 86% from 2019.

In November 2023, around 139,000 Americans[1] received notifications that they were either approved or denied for disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA). This program provides monthly monetary benefits to people who are unable to work for a year or more due to a physical or mental disability, such as arthritis, bipolar disorder, and in some cases, long COVID.

How long does it take to get approved for disability benefits?

Regardless of condition or outcome, on average, new applicants that received a decision in November 2023 had waited around 225 days, or seven months and fifteen days, for that verdict.

The wait time for new applicants has been relatively unchanged throughout 2023, fluctuating between 218 and 225 days.

Still, wait times in November 2023 are higher than they have been at any other point in the past 14 years. Between November 2019 and November 2023, the average wait time increased 86% from four months to over seven months.

The average processing time for initial disability benefit applications has increased to record levels

In September 2022, the SSA released a letter to the public remarking that the increased wait time on initial application decisions is “unacceptable" and “cause[s] significant financial hardship for the most vulnerable people.”

Applicants receive no monetary assistance from the SSA during the application process. They can also be disqualified for earning any amount above what the SSA calls substantial gainful activity. In 2021, that was about $160 per month above the poverty line[2].

After waiting over seven months for an initial decision, an estimated three out of five applicants will be denied benefits[3]. If the applicant decides to appeal the decision, a process that ultimately has a 48% success rate, they could wait additional months or years before a final decision is reached. Research has found that applicants are increasingly likely to begin using SNAP benefits (formerly “food stamps”) the longer they wait. An estimated 8,000 applicants file for bankruptcy and 10,000 die each year while awaiting a decision[4] on their disability benefit application.

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Are disability benefit decisions taking longer because there are more applications?

Like so many things, it appears at first glance that the increased wait time is likely attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, Disability Determination Services (DDS) offices, which judge each applicant’s eligibility, temporarily shut down. But the processing of initial applications resumed remotely shortly thereafter.

According to an internal investigation by the SSA’s Office of Audit, in the 12 months following the start of the pandemic (April 2020 to March 2021), there were 15.9% fewer new applicants than the year before. Even so, the backlog of cases pending a review and decision continued to grow, reaching a new high of 1.15 million initial applications in November 2023.

People are submitting fewer new disability benefit applications each month, but pending cases have increased

Where are disability benefit backlogs growing the most?

State-level DDS offices typically process initial applications rather than a single federal office. So, while some state backlogs have not changed much throughout the pandemic, others have grown drastically, contributing to the marked increase in unprocessed applications nationwide.

For instance, in an average month in 2022, Florida’s backlog contained around 55,000 more unprocessed disability applications than an average month in 2019. That’s a 156% increase.

Backlogs grew the most in the South between 2019 and 2022

Percent change in size of an average monthly backlog of disability applications, 2019 vs. 2022

Percent change: +156%
Change in backlog count: 54,900 more

Though people submitted fewer new applications, the SSA’s internal investigation concluded that workers were unable to keep pace with the demand. This led to longer-than-average wait times.

According to the SSA, additional funding is needed to help reduce backlogs. During the pandemic, they lost 7% of their employees, leading to their lowest staffing level in 25 years. Employee turnover was also at an all-time high, particularly in DDS offices where attrition rates were over 25%.

The SSA did receive an additional $785 million increase over their 2022 enacted budget. Despite the funding increase, officials warned that wait times may get worse before they get better as the SSA hires and trains new employees.

On March 9, 2023, President Biden released the Fiscal Year 2024 budget, which proposes $15.5 billion in discretionary budget authority for the SSA. This is a $1.4 billion or 10% increase over 2023 enacted funding levels. According to the SSA, the proposed budget would support further increasing staffing levels, allowing for around half a million more disability applications to be processed in a year than in 2022. They further expect that wait times for processing these applications will decrease.

How long does it take Social Security to make a decision on an appeal?

In November 2023, new applicants had waited an average of 225 days for a decision on their disability benefits application. Applicants who were denied have four opportunities to appeal their denial. Each step must be completed in order.

  1. Reconsideration at the DDS office
  2. A hearing in front of an administrative law judge
  3. A review with the SSA’s Appeals Council
  4. Filing an action with the federal district court

Like the initial step, the reconsideration step takes place at DDS offices — and growing backlogs affect processing time. The remaining steps of appeal, on the other hand, depend on court and judge availability.

Applicants that appeal may wait years for a final decision

Average time from submission to decision at each step of the application process for disability benefits

When appeals are taken into consideration, disability benefit applicants may end up waiting years for a decision. According to a 2020 study by the Government Accountability Office, the median wait time for a final decision on claims filed in 2015 was 839 days (or around two years and three months).

Learn more about this and other Social Security and Medicare programs.

Sources & Footnotes