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Wait times to receive Social Security disability benefit decisions reach new high

Applicants now wait nearly seven months for a decision on an initial application, up 68% from 2019.

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In December 2022, around 170,000 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 in December 2022 waited around 210 days, or 7 months, for an initial decision.

For context, the wait was longer in late 2022 than it had been at any other point in the past 14 years. Between December 2019 and December 2022, the average wait time increased 68% from four to seven months.

The average processing time for initial disability benefit applications has reached a new high

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 seven months for an initial decision, an estimated two out of three applicants will be denied benefits[3]. If the applicant decides to appeal the decision, a process that ultimately has a 47% 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.

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 judges 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 973,000 initial applications in December 2022.

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

Florida
Percent change: +156%
Change in backlog count: 54,900 more
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Though people submitted fewer new applications, leading to a seemingly smaller workload, the SSA’s internal investigation concluded that workers were unable to keep pace with the demand. This led to inflated backlogs and longer-than-average wait times.

SSA officials have submitted letters and testified before Congress to request an $800 million budget increase[5] for the 2023 fiscal year to help reduce backlogs. They state that without additional funding for employees and IT updates, backlogs would continue to grow and wait times would increase, resulting in “years of deteriorating service that the public will not and should not accept.”

The lack of funding forced the SSA to implement a hiring freeze in early 2022, which has since been lifted, yet they remain unable to compensate staff for overtime. The SSA has lost 7% of its employees during the pandemic, leading to its lowest staffing level in 25 years. Employee turnover is also at an all-time high, particularly in DDS offices where attrition rates are over 25%.

DDS offices are responsible for processing new applications, but if an applicant is denied and subsequently appeals that denial, DDS offices are also responsible for processing the application a second time. For every 10 approvals DDS offices send out, they will receive around nine appeal requests from denied applicants.

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

Ultimately, an applicant has four opportunities to appeal their disability benefit 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).

Sources & Footnotes