Social Security customer service is in crisis mode for people with disabilities

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Pundits and politicians have long sounded alarm bells about the solvency of America’s critical Social Security system and the predicted “cash flow” shortfall in benefits paid to retirees and people with disabilities in the future. Garnering much less attention is the service crisis the agency is wrestling with right now.

Hundreds of thousands of people are fighting for their lives today because of delayed responses from the woefully underfunded agency. Some 50,000 Illinoisans currently await an average of 306 days for a decision on their application for disability benefits — a number that is markedly worse than the national average of 228 days.

To be clear, in addition to retirement benefits, Social Security administers two types of disability payments: SSDI, available to people no longer able to work because of a significant medical condition, and SSI for people with very low income and assets who are 65 and older or have a disability.

Even when people with disabilities have a legal advocate, like the Chicago-based nonprofit Legal Council for Health Justice, to help navigate the complex system, the delays are considerable. Consider these examples:

“Maureen” is a working mother of two children with disabilities in Chicago, both of whom lost their SSI in November 2021 when the Social Security Administration failed to correctly apply its own complex financial eligibility rules. When Maureen, through her advocate, brought this mistake to SSA’s attention in May 2023, it took SSA five months to acknowledge its error. It took another five months to restart disability payments and process her back pay for 2½ years of benefits that her kids should have received all along.

“Diane” turned 62 in March and is eligible to collect early retirement benefits. She stopped working as a home health aide a few months earlier because of declining health, and became homeless shortly after. She now stays at a Chicago shelter. When she called her local Social Security office on April 1 to request an appointment to file for early retirement and apply for disability, she and her advocate were told that no appointments were available, and promised a return call within the week. SSA didn’t call back, and Diane’s advocate followed up twice in the next 10 days before finally getting an appointment date of June 6 to begin her application. Meanwhile, Diane continues to live at the shelter without income.

‘Devastating consequences’ make more SSA funding imperative

Providing timely assistance requires having enough staff to answer the phones or take applications in person, and process cases. Currently, SSA cannot keep up with the demand, which can lead to devastating consequences: Last year, over 30,000 people nationwide died waiting for a decision on their disability claim.

The average wait time to reach a representative on the agency’s national toll-free number has risen to 38 minutes, with higher waits at peak call times. Many people hang up in frustration before their call can be connected.

Social Security Administration commissioner Martin O’Malley testifies on Capitol Hill, March 20 in Washington.

Mariam Zuhaib/AP Photos

While federal agencies have become accustomed to doing more with less, especially since pandemic-related employee attrition, the service challenges at SSA are particularly daunting. The shrinking workforce reached a 25-year low in 2023 even as the number of filed claims and beneficiaries rose sharply.

The processing delays put the most vulnerable people at increased risk. It doesn’t have to be this way. Since former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley became SSA commissioner in late December, he’s focused on improving customer service. In recent testimony before Congress, O’Malley explained that if Congress passes President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2025 budget request of $15.4 billion — an increase of 9% — SSA could cut the average wait time on the national toll-free number to an acceptable 12 minutes, and could process 185,000 more initial disability claims than it is projected to do this year.

The need for additional funds is irrefutable. Despite a 25% increase in the number of Social Security beneficiaries served between 2010 and 2024, SSA’s customer service budget fell 19% (adjusted for inflation), and its staffing fell 11% over that same period, according to the Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.

Changes are already underway. SSA in February launched SecuritySTAT, a comprehensive performance management program, to accelerate the deployment of a range of customer service improvements. But SSA needs help. Congress must prioritize SSA funding requested by President Biden and championed by O’Malley.

Most of us will need to connect with SSA at some point in our lives. It is well past time to restore a level of customer service that provides prompt service and accountability. Let your senators and House members know that you are concerned — and voting. No one else should die waiting for help

Amy Marinacci is senior attorney and Julie Justicz is executive director of Legal Council for Health Justice, a nonprofit law firm in Chicago that represents people with chronic, disabling, and stigmatizing health and social conditions.

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