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The wait for a Social Security disability decision has been excessively long for some time, but recently it has hit an all-time high. Data for the current fiscal year shows that applicants with cases at the Chicago hearing office wait, on average, 573 days from the time they request a hearing until a decision is made. That’s more than a year and a half—an agonizingly long wait for those who are disabled, unable to work, and struggling to pay for food, housing and essential medications. The nationwide backlog of Social Security disability cases has now shot past the one million mark. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative John Larson (D-CT) have introduced a bill, named the Social Security Administration Fairness Act, to fix the Social Security disability backlog and streamline processing of claims at the Social Security Administration (SSA).
The heart of the problem, says Sanders and Larson, is that funding cuts have crippled the SSA. Their budget has diminished by nine percent since 2010, and in that same timeframe, the number of beneficiaries has increased by more than15 percent. “This has resulted in the loss of more than 10,000 employees, as well as the closure of all rural contact centers and more than 10 percent of all field offices nationwide. These funding cuts have had an unconscionable human cost—last year alone, 10,000 people died and thousands more lost their homes or declared bankruptcy while waiting on a disability decision,” they say.
The main provisions of the Sanders/Larson bill would:
“Social Security is the most successful government program ever, but it can’t work…if it doesn’t have adequate staff to answer the phones, meet with applicants and process claims. We must reject…efforts to cut and privatize Social Security, and instead ensure that all seniors and people with disabilities receive the benefits they have earned and deserve in a timely manner,” Sanders said.
Representative Larson commented that, “In order to serve its beneficiaries, the Social Security Administration needs an operational budget that keeps up with the demands the program is facing. Consider that 10,000 Baby Boomers become eligible for Social Security a day and that for the past decade Social Security’s budget has remained severely underfunded. These are benefits that American workers have paid for and earned with every paycheck—they have earned the right to better service. Social Security offices [have to] remain open and responsive to [their] beneficiaries, and…cruel waiting periods for the severely disabled [must be] eliminated.”
In addition to Sanders and Larson, co-sponsors of the bill are Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). In a press release, Sanders said the legislation has been endorsed by AFGE, AFL-CIO, Alliance for Retired Americans, Center for Medicare Advocacy, Justice in Aging, Medicare Rights Center, National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare, National Council of Social Security Management Associations, National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives, Social Security Works, Special Needs Alliance, Strengthen Social Security Coalition and The Arc.