Social Security Commissioner Pledges Better Customer Service for Disability Benefits Applicants

June 2, 2024

“We can and will do better,” newly appointed Social Security Commissioner Martin O’Malley told a congressional panel recently.

Many advocates for Americans with disabilities say the Social Security Administration (SSA) must do better, too, because there is a customer service crisis at the agency. Consider these statistics:

  • In the late 2010s, it typically took the Social Security Administration 110 to 120 days to process an initial application for disability benefits, according to agency data. In December 2023, the average wait time was 228 days, or more than seven months.
  • The agency has a backlog of 1.1 million pending initial disability claims.
  • In fiscal year 2023, 30,000 Americans passed away while awaiting decisions on their Social Security Disability claims.

Squarely pointing the finger at Congress, O’Malley said the agency’s problems are due to funding cuts which have resulted in “the reduction of our staffing to 27-year lows” at a time when there is a “rising tide of the numbers of customers.”

Although Social Security operates from a trust funded by payroll deductions, Congress sets limits for what the agency can spend on administrative expenses.

“O’Malley recently told Congress the buildup of disability claims is one of three targets he was focusing on after being confirmed as commissioner in December, in addition to wait times for the agency’s 1-800 number and problems with overpayments and underpayments in benefits,” Nextgov/FCW reported.

Another area that needs improvement, O’Malley acknowledges, is the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. SSI “purports to be a program of last resort,” but “forces the poorest of people to jump through hoops, stand on their head and gargle peanut butter in order to qualify for it,” he told lawmakers at a hearing.

Currently the full SSI application isn’t available online and, according to the SSA, it usually takes nearly two hours to complete. Previous efforts to streamline the SSI application were put on hold, but O’Malley says the agency will “take another run” at it. No release date for the new SSI application has been announced.

Recently the SSA has made some improvements which benefit SSI recipients. Starting in September, SSA will no longer consider food expenses in their in-kind support and maintenance (ISM) calculations.

This change removes a critical barrier that resulted in some individuals with disabilities being denied benefits and reduced the benefit amounts for others.

Additionally, the agency has announced it is expanding its rental subsidy policy. Under this new rule, rental assistance, such as renting at a discounted rate, will become less likely to affect a person’s SSI eligibility or payment amount.

Also, there are some legislative proposals on the table that could make it easier for the SSA to administer the SSI program.

In the near future, O’Malley says the SSA will prioritize hiring and invest in advanced information technology. Among other technology focuses is an effort to make it easier to find information online so that fewer people have to call the agency for answers.

But the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR, an association for disability lawyers and other representatives) says more needs to be done.

During a House of Representatives Ways and Means hearing, NOSSCR President David Camp testified that there are, “straightforward policy improvements that SSA could implement today—using existing authority, appropriations and staffing. These changes do not require further study, commissions or reviews. They are based on data and lessons learned…over the last 42 years. These policy changes would dramatically accelerate the processing time of initial claims and eliminate the backlog while enhancing decisional accuracy.”