Michael Astrue, the new commissioner of the Social Security Administration, may meet March 22 with a small group of representatives from private industry.

One likely member of the group, Karen Ignagni, president of America’s Health Insurance Plans, Washington, would like to talk about ways private insurers can work with the SSA to improve the agency’s infamously slow Social Security Disability Income program, according to Winthrop Cashdollar, executive director for disability insurance at AHIP.

Cashdollar talked about the Astrue meeting here at a disability insurance conference organized by JHA, Portland, Maine, a disability insurance consulting and reinsurance firm.

AHIP represents companies that sell disability insurance as well as those that sell medical insurance.

Some projections show that SSDI could begin spending more on benefits than it takes in as early as 2017.

AHIP believes its members could help improve the performance and finances of SSDI by contributing the kind of flexibility and expertise they now contribute to the Medicare Advantage managed care program and the Medicare Part D prescription drug program, Cashdollar said.

Cashdollar said AHIP member disability insurers could help the SSDI program by passing along the information they have gathered for their own claim reviews; setting up assessment and return-to-work programs that would start as soon as workers file for SSDI benefits; and even administering public disability benefits.

Addressing privacy concerns and coordinating the interests of many different groups of stakeholders would be an important part of establishing any public-private partnerships, Cashdollar said.

Cashdollar noted that the SSA itself has had trouble implementing several of its own SSDI reform pilot programs because of difficulties with getting necessary approvals from other federal agencies.

The benefits of successful SSDI reform efforts could be great because the program, often thought of a footnote to the Social Security retirement income program, serves 8.6 million disabled workers and dependents, and that program alone consumes about 0.7% of U.S. gross domestic product.

Going through the full SSDI claim and appeal process can take an average of about 3 years, and only about 1% of claimants who succeed at getting SSDI benefits leave the SSDI rolls to return to work, according to SSA and Council of Economic Advisers reports.

Adult SSDI beneficiaries are not easy to compare with recipients of private disability insurance benefits, but one study has suggested that about 30% of private long-term disability insurance beneficiaries eventually return to work, Cashdollar said.