Americans waited an average of more than two years for benefits decisions from the government during the past decade.
More than 1% of the 9 million Americans—or 110,000 people—who filed an appeal for government disability benefits through the Social Security Administration between fiscal 2008 and 2019 died before receiving a decision from the federal agency.
Another 48,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy awaiting a benefits decision from the Social Security Administration between fiscal 2014 and 2019, according to a scathing audit released this month by the Government Accountability Office. Auditors put the blame on wait times at the agency that ballooned to an average of more than two years at times during the past decade.
“Median wait times rose to 839 days for claims filed in fiscal year 2015, following an increase of disability claims subsequent to the Great Recession,” the audit states.
The Social Security Administration manages $185 billion annually that flows through two major disability benefits programs, Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. As of 2019, more than 12 million adults with disabilities and eligible dependents receive necessary benefits through those two programs, and auditors explained the hundreds of thousands of disability benefits applicants each year skew toward those with “very low earnings” or serious medical conditions.
The auditors said benefits resolution wait times increased largely due to applicants waiting longer for hearings before administrative law judges. Ten percent of Americans who filed for disability benefits in fiscal 2015 awaited pending appeal through 2018, according to auditors.
The audit is the latest criticizing operations at the Social Security Administration. In July, audits by the Social Security Administration Inspector General revealed 4 million Americans waited longer than one hour in line at Social Security field offices before speaking with a representative. That audit revealed more than 20 million Americans left a Social Security field office over the past decade without receiving service. A separate IG audit uncovered similar customer experience issues plaguing the agency’s telephone services.
The delayed wait times come as the agency faces a record number of total beneficiaries. Through all its benefits portfolio, the Social Security Administration serves 61 million Americans monthly, or one-fifth of the total U.S. population.
"We have made significant progress improving the hearings process by prioritizing the cases of those individuals who have waited the longest for a hearing decision," Stephanie Hall, Social Security Administration Chief of Staff, told GAO in response to the report. "Despite the uncertainties about how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect our progress, we will continuously seek opportunities to improve the service we provide to the public."