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We Must Fix the Social Security Disability Application Backlog

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America’s growing population is facing a crisis when the unexpected strikes and permanent disability occurs. One in five people (or 56 million) in the United States are disabled. Economic disparity has caused us to work longer before retirement, while technologies have given us longer lifespans. One never knows when they’ll become disabled — this simple fact has helped to keep this issue in the shadows and devoid of attention. Only disabled people seem to recognize the urgency of stopping the three-year determination delay agencies have had for two decades, despite very strictly defined eligibility criteria most appellants already meet.

It’s gotten worse, with 10,000 people dying last year while awaiting benefits. On average, 800,000 to 1.2 million silently suffer each year, with the phenomenon responsible for countless bankruptcies and homelessness.

Two decades of complaints by the affected to Congress hasn’t fixed the chronic shortage of administrative law judges who hear appeals, or the contracted physicians vetting applicants’ records to determine if they qualify for benefits based on a complicated, extensive set of accepted conditions known as the Blue Book. Rampant agency
mistakes cause a huge influx of unnecessary appeals before judges faced with already huge caseloads. The problem has gotten worse each year and shows no signs of improving. Everyone seems to know somebody affected by the “disability impossibility” but nothing has been done to address it. This motivated me to begin the national debate.

The Congressional Budget Office projected this year that the Disability Trust Fund will become insolvent in 2023. This ongoing issue generates nearly all the public’s interest in Social Security and greatly distracts from discussion of the backlog. Most Americans who are not disabled find it hard to believe the federal disability program is unable to process disability determinations in a timely manner. The number of disabled will only continue to rise as the nation’s population grows, meaning the intensive demand will likely never improve and only continue to worsen. Conditions one might have died from a decade earlier have become treatable as advances in medicine and technology prolong our lives. However, such innovations don’t necessarily return people to the workforce.

After enduring this circumstance myself with eight qualifying disabilities, I realized a solution would only occur if the public demanded it. Clearly, Congress has ignored their constituents long enough that a signature petition was necessary to call on the two subcommittees in Congress who oversee Social Security to finally take action. Over 1,300 have signed it so far, with over 200 comments about personal experiences that bring disgust and tears. If this wasn’t an already grim situation, Trump’s budget has $63 billion in cuts slated for disability, which will further damage an already lean and barely-functioning agency. My petition has motivated a House member from Indiana to write an article acknowledging the issue. A female GOP representative discussing the need for congressional intervention highlights the nonpartisan nature of this issue.

In the United States, it seems the prevailing opinion has been that the permanently disabled (who don’t yet qualify for retirement benefits) must use personal savings and faith-based groups for their long-term care. This impractical notion has been espoused by the American Medical Association since their disdain began over Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. Years of political hostility and inaction by both parties in Congress to help disabled workers resulted in President Eisenhower finally intervening and getting the Social Security Disability program we know today implemented in 1958 — but only after two failed attempts and objection from both parties.

We still have much disdain for disabled people in America and have much to learn from our colleagues in other organized democracies. Waiting years for help shouldn’t become an accepted part of being disabled in this country. Much can be said about how a nation cares for its disabled citizens. For two decades America has told the world we’d prefer they die than receive basic benefits to which they’re entitled, which average only $1,165 per month.

Sign the Change petition today and help Congress fix this problem. You can also email your representatives (there’s a link on the petition page). Until we start asking Congress about this issue with any numbers, this issue will only worsen and continue destroying America’s economy, with hundreds of thousands of unnecessary bankruptcies and home forfeitures a year.

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Getty image by Claudio Baba.

Originally published: February 4, 2018
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