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Budget 2013: SSA Pleads for Disability Help

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Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administrator (SSA), is begging Congress to give the agency at least as much funding as it has requested for fiscal year 2013.

The new fiscal year starts Oct. 1.

SSA has asked Congress to provide $11.9 billion in budget authority for 2013, up from $11.6 billion for 2012.

For private disability insurers, the statue of SSA’s Social Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is a high priority.

The SSDI program pays benefits to workers who are so severely disabled that they cannot reasonably be expected to hold any ordinary job that pays more than a nominal amount of income. Disabled workers who qualify for SSDI can get Medicare health insurance 2 years after they get their SSDI benefits.

SSA expects to pay $143 billion in benefits to 11 million disabled people and family members in 2013.

A trust fund covers the cost of the SSDI benefits, but the SSA has to come up with funding needed to administer the program.

In part because of tight budgets, SSA officials have been struggling to reduce SSDI processing times for more than a decade.

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In fiscal year 2011, SSDI had 759,000 initial disability claims pending and 787,000 claim hearings pending. The average processing time for hearing decisions was 345 days. That average was down from 532 days in August 2008 but still far above the goal of 270 days.

Congress allocated funding for SSA to try to speed up processing by hiring 2,600 Disability Determination Service employees in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Those employees are now fully trained and helping to bring down processing times, Astrue says.

But, because of the effects of the recession and the aging of the baby boomers, ”more people filed for disability during the economic downturn, and even more people have pursued appeals,” Astrue says.

SSA likely will complete 960,000 SSDI hearings in 2013, up from 795,000 in 2011.

The number of pending initial disability claims could rise to 1.1 million, from 861,000 this year.

The increase in productivity associated with the 2009 and 2010 hires could be short-lived, because SSA went through a hiring freeze in 2011 and will do only limited hiring this year. The agency is losing employees much faster than it is hiring and training them, Astrue says.

Astrue says SSA has tried to increase its efficiency by taking steps such as cutting travel budgets and service hours.

Later this year, SSA will try to reduce costs even further by requiring all claimant representatives to file appeals online using the iAppeal system, Astrue says.