Late last month lawmakers of both the Democratic and Republican parties pushed Social Security’s acting Assistant Deputy Commissioner of Operations, Linda Kerr-Davis, to explain what they are perceiving as systemic flaws in the disability benefits system. These flaws include everything from long-term backlogs in claims to increasing wait times for customer care phone calls, according to disability service complaints.
Experts told the House panel, consisting of lawmakers from both parties, that Social Security’s cumbersome claims process has stagnated for over two years, rather than rebounding from epidemic closures and slowdowns. According to agency data, over a million Americans are still awaiting initial decisions regarding their benefits, which now take an average of 220 days. This is more than twice as long as in 2019 and significantly longer than the 60 days that Social Security itself specifies as the minimal level of performance.
During the two-and-a-half-hour hearing, the chairman of the Social Security panel of the House Committee on Ways and Means, Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.), stated, “The consequences are devastating.”
The hearing came about in response to articles published in The Washington Post detailing years of problems with a disability benefits system that experienced a sharp decline in service during the pandemic. The platform detailed Social Security’s challenges in delivering basic customer service throughout its operations, especially in state offices where it had previously contracted out claim reviews.
Kerr-Davis further stated, “We realize we’re not delivering the service everyone wants.”
According to her, Social Security is implementing several tactics to enhance service.
To assist state offices in processing claims, dozens of workers from headquarters and regional offices have been deployed. Governors have been requested to assist in hiring and retaining staff and according to Kerr-Davis, more financing is essential.
However, legislators detailed more profound, structural issues, with Republicans pointing the finger at a bureaucratic, sluggish culture and Democrats mostly blaming tight resources. There was little chance for simple fixes.
Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.) stated, “It’s evident that Social Security has a serious customer service issue.”
He further explained that not only is it ineffective, but it’s also terrible and cruel. When someone calls the Social Security office, it has to be explained to them that they will be denied and that their time is utterly wasted, starting a protracted appeals process.
During the Trump administration, Mark Warshawsky, Deputy Commissioner for Retirement and Disability Policy, testified saying, “The agency has been aware of this problem for 20 years.”
According to Warshawsky, it’s unclear why the organization isn’t using the more recent list of positions to address disability service complaints. He said that the information was already in, published and verified, noting that he doesn’t understand why the threads haven’t been utilized.
Lawmakers also brought up The Post’s exposé on Social Security’s use of an outdated list of jobs that the Labor Department discarded decades ago but that the agency still uses for appeals. Over two decades, Social Security has invested almost $300 million to update the list, yet it remains unutilized.
Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. (D-N.J.) emphasized that adding more resources and money won’t solve the issue, and “we’ll be defeating ourselves if we didn’t have the right policies.”
Pascrell expressed his specific outrage over a veteran-related policy that permits Social Security to disregard a 2017 court decision that gave Veterans Affairs disability evaluations significant weight.
With so many topics on the table and high-levels changes needing to be made, the heated conversations are likely to continue for now.