Ranking Member Larson Opening Statement at Social Security Subcommittee Hearing on Eligibility for Social Security Disability Benefits
(Remarks as prepared)
Thank you, Chairman Johnson, for holding this hearing.
Millions of Americans rely on Social Security for basic income when they are retired, or if they become severely disabled and can no longer work. Social Security is also there to help widows and children who have lost a parent. There is no private plan on the market that can compare.
Hurricane Harvey has shown just how important Social Security is. Thanks to electronic deposits, most Social Security beneficiaries will still get their payments right on time, and Social Security is working with Treasury and the Postal Service to ensure that those who receive payments by check can get them. Social Security employees are already stationed at disaster assistance stations run by the Red Cross and FEMA.
Natural disasters remind us just how important it is to fight back against calls to cut Social Security and, instead, come together in a bipartisan way to make common sense adjustments to strengthen America’s insurance plan and protect the benefits Americans’ have earned and rely on. Both the Chairman and I have offered comprehensive plans to address the long-term shortfall in the Social Security system, so that Americans can continue to count on these benefits for generations to come. While differing in our approaches, I hope we will be able to have a hearing out in Texas or elsewhere in the country to discuss our different approaches to Social Security right there with the American public.
But today’s hearing is focused on the problem of record-high delays in processing disability applications. Since 2010, the number of beneficiaries has grown by 13 percent as the baby boomers reach retirement age, but Social Security’s operating budget has fallen by more than 10 percent, after accounting for inflation. This has made it difficult, even impossible, for Social Security to serve our constituents promptly, when they need help the most. There are delays throughout the Social Security Administration, but today’s hearing is focused on the lengthy waits for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) who can decide on a disability benefit appeal.
These hearings are important – it is the first time an applicant gets to meet face-to-face with an examiner. In many instances, these hearings are the first time the Social Security Administration has the applicant’s complete medical evidence in hand and applicants can seek help from an attorney or a professional, which is important given how complex the law is in this area.
But so far this year, the wait for a hearing is 600 days. This is a record high – or a record low in service to our constituents.
I want to tell you about the impact of these delays on one of my constituents. Ms. V was a preschool teacher from Connecticut. She was in an explosion that destroyed her home and burned half of her body. In addition to the burns, she developed PTSD and a facial pain disorder. She filed for Social Security disability in March 2015, but was turned down. She appealed and did not get a hearing until June 2017. It took almost 3 more months for her to get the award notice, and she is still waiting for her benefits to start. While she waited, she sold her car to meet expenses, and had to turn to her church and some relatives just to get by. Ms. V. is one of the luckier ones – she has only been waiting for two and a half years. She did not become homeless, she did not commit suicide, she did not die from her condition while awaiting benefits. Many others have.
This problem has been building for years, yet we’ve had no hearings in the last two Congresses about it. That is why I thank the Chairman again for holding a hearing on such an important problem that has affected people across the country. The culprit is years of inadequate funding for Social Security’s operational budget. This budget shortage has come at a particularly bad time – given the temporary increase in applications that happened during the Great Recession, plus the aging of the baby boomer population. There is no way for the Social Security Administration’s dedicated employees to keep up with rising numbers of beneficiaries in light of falling funding, even with additional efficiencies from IT investments and prioritizing its workloads.
Good management on the part of the Social Security Administration and its employees is critical, but there is no substitute for having enough Administrative Law Judges, attorneys and other support staff to gather evidence, review it carefully against eligibility criteria, and make a decision.
I’d like to refer to this chart, showing the waiting times for Disability Benefit Appeals from 1986 to 2017. You’ll see that the current waiting time is now at 600 days. But I’d like to refer you back to 2008-2010 when Congress provided the Social Security Administration with adequate administrative funding.
What happened in the subsequent years? The waiting times fell to 360 days in 2011 and to 353 in 2012.
We must ensure that adequate staffing levels are a part of any backlog reduction plan. With that, I thank the Chairman for calling today’s hearing and I look forward to hearing from all our witnesses.