Retirement & Financial Planning Report

The Social Security Administration has speeded up its handling of disability benefits applications in recent years but the length of the process still causes a financial burden on many applicants, GAO has said.

The SSA process is important to federal employees because those filing for FERS disability retirement must also apply for Social Security disability and go through that agency’s process as well as OPM’s process for civil service disability benefits.

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GAO said that the median time to complete what can be as much as a five-stage process of consideration and appeals reached 839 days in 2015 in the wake of a surge of claims following the Great Recession, before falling to 506 days in 2019—which, GAO noted, was before another surge now happening due to the pandemic.

Looked at another way, among applicants who filed for disability benefits in fiscal year 2015, 41 percent still had pending appeals at the end of fiscal year 2017 and 10 percent still had pending appeals at the end of fiscal year 2018.

GAO added: “Because disability applicants may have no or very low earnings and cannot earn more than SSA’s defined substantial gainful activity amount without affecting their eligibility for benefits, they could experience negative financial outcomes such as bankruptcy while awaiting a decision. Additionally, as disability applicants are likely to have a serious medical condition, their health could deteriorate during a lengthy appeals process.”

It found that while they were waiting for their claims to be finally adjudicated about 1 percent of applicants filed for bankruptcy and about another 1 percent died.

It said it presented its findings to the SSA but the agency did not comment.

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