Obama's stimulus program sped up the Social Security claims process, but the gains may not last
Four years ago, Barack Obama promised to reform one of governments biggest entitlement programs.
He said the Social Security Administration was guilty of "unconscionable delays” in reviewing and deciding benefit claims. Obama said his administration would add staff, invest in new technology and streamline the application and appeals process.
Did he do it? In the short term, yes. A permanent fix, however, has eluded Obama.
First, a quick review of the problem: In the past decade, many more people have qualified for Social Security benefits. The reasons for the increase include a sluggish economy, the retirement of baby boomers, more women in the workforce and expanded eligibility for some benefits. But the government didn't keep up with the new demand.
In 2008, the average national wait time for people seeking disability benefits -- from the initial hearing through the appeals process -- was 532 days. In a few state offices, the average wait in 2007 was more than two years. That meant some people unable to work because of a disability were waiting more than a year for government aid to pay for essentials such as rent, heat and groceries.
As part of the economic stimulus program -- officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 -- roughly $500 million went to the Social Security Administration, resulting in 2,415 new hires. Those added employees helped speed up the claims and hearings process. By April 2012 the average national wait time was down by a third.
Obama also said he would "streamline” the appeals and hearing procedures, without committing to specific proposals. He seems to have fulfilled this squishy part of the promise. The Social Security Administration has plans to embrace health internet technology and screening tools; since 2010 it has given people the option of filing their initial applications online. Finally, government adjudicators have new ways to quickly approve or reject claims where the person obviously does -- or does not -- qualify for benefits.
It seems that the application and appeals process is improved. Without stimulus-like investments though, are the gains permanent? Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administration doesn't think so.
"We cannot continue to handle increasing disability claims without adequate funding,” he told the Senate Finance Committee in April.
Astrue noted that after the 2009 stimulus, Congress had not appropriated enough money to keep up with rising costs in 2011 and 2012. Even with Obama's proposed budget increase for 2013, he anticipated that the Social Security Administration would see a total loss of 9,000 state and federal employees from 2011 through 2013.
Obama vowed to streamline the application and hearing process, add staff and invest in new technology and with Congress' help, he did all three. Since many of those gains were temporary consequences of his 2009 stimulus law -- with no sign of permanent support -- we rate this a Compromise.
Senate Finance Committee, Statement of Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security Administration, May 17, 2012
U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, Testimony of Marty Ford of the Social Security Task Force at the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, Sept. 14, 2012
U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, Statement by Sam Johnson, R-Texas, Sept. 14, 2012
U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, Statement by Patrick P. O'Carroll, Jr., inspector general for the Social Security Administration, Nov. 15, 2010
Stimulus funds to aid process, but proposed budgetary boost fizzles
During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to improve operations for the Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Supplemental Security Income programs, saying they have been "consistently under-funded, resulting in unconscionable delays in initial claims determinations and hearings" for applicants. Obama said his administration is "committed to streamlining the current application and appeals procedures to reduce the confusion that surrounds these important programs. As president, Obama will also ensure that the [Social Security Administration] has the funding it needs to hire judges and staff and to invest in technology to expedite final decisions."
This is a wide-ranging promise, and the administration's execution has been mixed. The administration proposed $11.6 billion for administrative expenses, nearly a 10 percent increase that would have been devoted to hiring, technology and operational needs. But when the president signed the final appropriations bill funding the department, he settled for $10.8 billion -- an increase of roughly 2 percent, which isn't much above inflation.
On the other hand, the administration did insert $1 billion for the Social Security Administration into the economic stimulus package, primarily to improve information technology that is aimed at better handling the agency's workloads.
So there's mixed progress on the funding and the technology. We'll be watching to see if there's also progress on his vow to "streamline" the process. For now, we rate this one In the Works.