Almost 110,000 Americans died while waiting for a Social Security disability hearing

The Social Security program, in addition to providing retirement benefits, also provides disability payments to those who are unable work because of a physical or mental condition. Unfortunately, the process that applicants (who are often older and poorer than most Americans) have to go through in order to start receiving these benefits can sometimes take years.

According to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which is a nonpartisan federal agency, nearly 110,000 people died from 2008 to 2019 while waiting for an appeal after initially being denied Social Security disability benefits.  Additionally, 50,000 people who were waiting for their cases to be resolved filed for bankruptcy between the years of 2014 and 2019.

The median wait time for the appeals process was 506 days last year, and rose as high as 839 days in 2015, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

“We have had clients who have died while they were waiting for hearings,” says Claire Grandison. She is staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia and works on applications for Supplemental Security Income (SSI). “We have had clients with horrible outcomes – evictions, utility shut-offs and declining health even before the point that they pass away.”

Disability payments are provided through two Social Security Administration programs: SSI, providing financial assistance to working-age adults unable to work because of a physical or mental disability; and Disability Insurance (DI), which is for lower-income people.

Following the Great Recession, the wait time for appeals increased in part due to an increase in applications. Grandison worries the coronavirus pandemic may cause the same thing to happen again as we have recently seen unemployment levels at their highest since the Great Depression. Disability applications have gone down during this health crisis, but she says they might jump up once the worst of the pandemic is over.

Those who apply for disability benefits can appeal if the Social Security Administration denies their claim. Most applicants are turned down the first time they apply. According to data from the SSA, only ¼ of applications have been approved on their first try in recent years. Appeals have a better chance of succeeding – the GAO found that 49% of applicants who filed appeals between 2008 to 2019 and whose cases were concluded within those years started receiving disability benefits.

The findings show the need to focus on the appeals backlog and provide more funding for Social Security, according to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an independent, and Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, a Democrat, who commissioned the GAO study.

“It is absolutely unconscionable that thousands of Americans suffer and die every year waiting for a final decision to get the modest Social Security benefits they need to survive. People with disabilities trying to access their earned benefits are forced to wait years before they even get a hearing,” says Sanders.