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Average Wait Time for Disability Hearings Hits Record High

Applying for Social Security disability benefits is often a three-step process. The SSA approves only 33 percent at initial application and only an additional 12 percent at appeal. The majority of applicants have to request a hearing to try to get approved.

But that three-step process is getting longer. It typically takes three to five months for your initial application to get rejected and another two to four months for the Social Security Administration (SSA) to deny your appeal. It’s the wait time for a hearing that continues to increase.

As of August 2017, the average wait time in Indianapolis to get a hearing jumped from 19 to 20 months.

An extra month may not seem like much, but for those in desperate need of benefits, an extra month can feel like an eternity.

It’s not an Indianapolis problem, either. Nationally, wait times for disability hearings are at a record high. It takes an average of 601 days (19 months and 22 days) from the time a person submits a request for hearing until the hearing has been held and the administrative law judge (ALJ) has made their decision on the person’s case. In Indianapolis, you have to wait an average of 617 days (20 months and 8 days), 16 days worse than the national average.

There are three main reasons for the long wait times: an aging population, a larger workforce, and a stagnant SSA.

An Aging Population

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The SSA sees a clear correlation between its increasing backlog and the aging of the baby boomer generation.

According to the Population Reference Bureau, there were approximately 76.4 million baby boomers in the U.S. in 2012. 65.2 million baby boomers were part of the initial 76 million births in the United States from 1946 to 1964. The number increased to 76.4 million when immigrants in the same age group who had been born elsewhere but moved to the U.S. were taken into account.

According to American Community Survey data, around 68 percent of baby boomers were still employed in 2012. That doesn’t mean that all unemployed baby boomers are on disability. Many have retired with a private retirement plan or have taken advantage of their retirement through Social Security, which is separate from disability benefits. Baby boomers reached their most disability-prone years between 1990 and 2011, according to the SSA.

A Larger Workforce

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Although President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, it wasn’t until 1954 that the Social Security Amendments created a disability insurance program, and it wasn’t until 1956 that the program actually began providing benefits to disabled workers.

What did the American workforce look like back then? For one thing, men dominated the workforce. In 1950, only one in three women participated in the workforce for a total of 18 million female workers. As of 2015, 57 percent of women participated in the civilian labor force, totaling around 73.5 million female workers.

But it wasn’t just women’s participation that caused the workforce to grow. As the U.S. population increased, so did its workers. In 1950, there were only 151.3 million Americans total, and the civilian workforce was 62 million. According to the most recent census data in 2010, there are 308.7 million Americans, and as of August 2017, the workforce has grown to roughly 160.6 million.

As the workforce increases, the number of people who pay into Social Security increases. That means that the number of people who may be eligible to withdraw Social Security disability benefits increases as well.

A Stagnant SSA

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It’s easy to see how an aging, growing workforce would create more disability applicants. But surely the SSA could see this problem coming from a mile away, right? They had to have known that the amount of people potentially eligible for disability benefits would increase as the workforce and senior population increased.

Indeed, the SSA saw the backlog growing and attempted to respond to it. In January 2015, the SSA drew up a plan to decrease the backlog. They set a goal of hiring at least 250 ALJs per year from 2016 to 2018, including their necessary support staff. They also planned to make better use of available technology and conduct video hearings. Their goal was to decrease the wait time for a hearing to just 9 months by the end of 2020, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

The plan looked promising at the beginning. In 2016, the SSA exceeded its goal and hired 264 ALJs. But in 2017, that progress came to a grinding halt.

For the SSA, their fiscal year ends in September. So far, they’ve only hired 30 ALJs in fiscal year 2017.

Why the sudden slowdown? Hiring freezes throughout the federal government have prevented the SSA from implementing their plan. This isn’t exactly a new problem: the SSA’s core operating budget has been cut by 10 percent since 2010, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The SSA projects that by the end of September, average wait times will be at 605 days. They’ve adjusted their goals to try to get wait times down to 9 months by the end of September 2022 now, not 2020.

Help from an Indiana Disability Attorney

From initial application to hearing, it takes a long time to get approved for Social Security disability benefits. An Indiana disability attorney can make sure you’re using your time wisely and doing everything possible to help with your case. No matter where you are in the process, a disability attorney can help. Call Hensley Legal Group today or contact us online for a free consultation.