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Booker Calls for Social Security Administration to Address Growing Disability Backlog

Approximately one million Americans are waiting for a decision on their eligibility for disability benefits

June 8, 2018
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) called on the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) to address the growing backlog of disability hearings that is preventing millions of Americans from accessing potentially lifesaving benefits. In a letter to the Acting SSA Commissioner Nancy Berryhill, Booker called for a thorough assessment of the entire disability benefits adjudication process and inquired about factors leading to the backlog and any efforts to address it.

“Our Social Security system provides crucial income security for many vulnerable Americans, but with an increase in applications and a growing backlog, millions are waiting for their critical lifesaving and earned benefits,” Booker wrote. “Between FY16 and FY17, over 18,700 people died nationwide while waiting to receive a hearing date for their disability benefits. This is simply unacceptable and Americans deserve better.”

Nationally, there is a growing backlog for disability hearings before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), which is one of the final steps in the appeal process. In 2017, individuals applying for disability benefits waited an average of 596 days to plead their case before an ALJ, nearly double the average wait time from 2012.  In New Jersey, the average processing time is even longer, with claimants waiting more than 700 days to appear before an ALJ.

The full text of the letter is as follows:

June 8, 2018

Nancy A. Berryhill

Acting Commissioner

Social Security Administration

6401 Security Boulevard

Baltimore, MD 21235


Dear Commissioner Berryhill:


I write today to express serious concerns with the backlog for disability hearings at the Social Security Administration (SSA) in relation to the Administrative Review Process. Our Social Security system provides crucial income security for many vulnerable Americans, but with an increase in applications and a growing backlog, millions are waiting for their critical lifesaving and earned benefits.

As you know, denied applications for disability insurance are subject to an extensive appeals process. Last year, applicants waited an average of 596 days to plead their cases before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), nearly double the average wait time from 2012. [1] In New Jersey, the average processing time is even longer, with claimants waiting over 700 days to appear before an ALJ.[2]  From September 2017 to February 2018, New Jersey’s three hearing offices had a significant amount of pending cases, totaling 23,900 across the state; 5,995 in Jersey City, 9,286 in Newark, and 8,619 cases in South Jersey.[3] My constituents waiting for a hearing date are among the most vulnerable in the country; they struggle with dwindling savings accounts, limited funds to access prescription medications, and even foreclosure on their homes. Between FY16 and FY17, over 18,700 people died nationwide while waiting to receive a hearing date for their disability benefits.[4] This is simply unacceptable and Americans deserve better.

I appreciate the Agency’s effort to put forth goals focused on curbing the implications of extensive wait times and the number of hearings pending in the Compassionate and Responsive Service (CARES) and Anomaly Plan. While the CARES plan begins to address mounting wait times, we must continue to find ways to aid the bottlenecks that exist at all levels of the Administrative Review Process. Although the FY18 Omnibus provides a $480 million increase in funding for the Social Security Administration, I am concerned that the Social Security Administration lacks the strategic plan to reduce the backlog and fulfill its critical mission.

As you know, the Administrative Review Process is comprised of many stages, each playing a unique role in the Social Security system.  I encourage you to propose and enact changes to improve the existing process and ease the tremendous backlog for the thousands of Americans currently waiting for their due benefits.

I am requesting that you undertake a thorough assessment of the entire disability benefits adjudication process and provide answers to the following questions in writing, no later than July 11, 2018.  

  1. What factors contribute to the growing number of cases pending and the increase in wait times?

  2. Why are New Jersey’s average wait times for hearings disproportionately longer in comparison to the national average? What changes have been and can be enacted to correct this disparity?

  3. How does the Social Security Administration plan on meeting the benchmarks set forth in the CARES plan?

  4. How does the Social Security Administration plan to leverage in the increased  funding appropriated for FY18 to decrease case backlogs?

  5. What additional resources do you deem necessary to continue to improve the disability process in future years?

I am committed to working with you to identify ways to improve the Administrative Review Process, in order to reduce the impact that extensive wait times have on millions of Americans. I look forward to your response and ideas on how to improve the Administrative Review Process for the thousands of affected individuals in New Jersey and across the country.

                                                                    Sincerely,

                                                                    Cory A. Booker

                                                                    United States Senator

[1] McCoy, Terrence. The Washington Post. “597 days. And Still Waiting.” 20, November 2017. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2017/11/20/10000-people-died-waiting-for-a-disability-decision-in-the-past-year-will-he-be-next/?utm_term=.83ef018dfc95

[2] Social Security Administration. Hearing Office Average Processing Time Ranking Report FY 18. https://www.ssa.gov/appeals/DataSets/05_Average_Processing_Time_Report.html

[3] Social Security Administration. Hearing Office Workload Data FY 18. https://www.ssa.gov/appeals/DataSets/02_HO_Workload_Data.html

[4] [4] McCoy, Terrence. The Washington Post. “597 days. And Still Waiting.” 20, November 2017. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2017/11/20/10000-people-died-waiting-for-a-disability-decision-in-the-past-year-will-he-be-next/?utm_term=.83ef018dfc95

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