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During a recession, the disabled are at the greatest risk

The worst recession in decades is a scary period for many American families. But it is a time of particular peril for those living with work-limiting disabilities, especially in states such as California, where involuntary furloughs and layoffs of state employees who process Social Security disability claims further bog down a system that is already in crisis.

The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) system worked well for decades, but it is creaking under the weight of a growing population of people with disabilities, increasing demands on the Social Security Administration and a wave of government retirements. Social Security employees work as hard as they can to help people who deserve care, but their best efforts are only slowly winnowing down a hearing backlog of nearly 723,000 disabled Americans—including 66,000 Californians—waiting months or years to receive their rightful benefits.

The recession is making things even worse. From 2004 through 2007, application levels were stable, with the SSA processing between 2.1 million and 2.2 million SSDI applications each year. Last year, more than 2.7 million people filed SSDI applications.

Furloughing state workers only adds to the misery. The Social Security Administration relies on state employees to process disability claims, but provides full reimbursement for all expenses. So states are not saving any money by forcing these employees to take time off. It just adds to California’s disability backlog.

 The disability backlog is best portrayed as a massive highway traffic jam. Even if you add a couple of extra lanes or provide a few more exits, you won’t break the blockage if too many cars are flooding the on-ramps to take their place. That’s the situation now facing the Social Security Administration, with the agency recently reporting that the “pre-backlog” at the initial application level now exceeds 1 million people – nearly a 40 percent increase over 2008.

The average wait time at the hearing level alone is now about 16 months. As tough as the disability application process is, it’s no surprise so many people try to avoid it at all costs. A process that can involve tests, hearings and mountains of complicated paperwork—all for an uncertain promise of help that could be years away—is not something everyone wants to take on.

But when the economy gets bad, some realize that they can no longer afford to live without the disability benefits they are owed because of additional financial strains. They may have been struggling to keep working with a progressive health problem and now lost their job. Perhaps the spouse who had been supporting the family suddenly loses her job.

More resources for the SSA would help fix this problem over the long run, but a simple, cost-free step could make an immediate difference. Because applicants are new to the SSDI process and often don’t know help is available, too many initial claims are denied for simple mistakes that have nothing to do with the applicant’s disability status.

In other cases, applicants who don’t meet the standards for disability—but might if their conditions worsen over time—bog down the system when a simple pre-qualification process would let them know they aren’t ready yet.

Allsup recently surveyed nearly 300 of our successful claimants. Of this group, 90 percent said they faced negative repercussions while waiting for their SSDI award. Fully 85 percent said they would have found it useful for the SSA to inform them in advance of their options for receiving help with their SSDI application.

Congress and the president should immediately direct the SSA to notify applicants that they have options when pursuing their claims. Expert disability representatives work exactly like tax professionals to help guide applicants through a complex government process, create a complete filing, comply with the rules and laws, and advocate for them before a federal agency. By the time applicants reach the hearing level (65 percent will see their initial application denied), about 90 percent have assistance.

Many hundreds of thousands of government worker-hours would be saved if more applications processed by the SSA were professionally reviewed, documented and prepared before they are submitted.

Ultimately, each individual applicant will decide how best to pursue a claim. For some, working alone might be their choice. For many others, the multi-year application process, and the risks of mistakes and missed appeal deadlines that will further delay their benefits are simply too daunting to deal with alone.

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