Saturday, August 9, 2008

Social Security Disability Backlogs, Safety Nets and the Commissioner Speaks

Commissioner of Social Security, Michael J. Astrue, recently spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff writer Ann Hardie about the backlog of 761,000 disability claims pending nationwide and in particular the Atlanta region. The complete article was published on 08/03/08. The interview reveals Mr. Astrue’s continued focus and how the ordeal affects his blood pressure.

Q: When you became commissioner, you must have known there was a backlog?

A: Oh sure. When you get a call about a job like this and you size it up, you say, "What is the challenge?" The top priority was trying to fix the backlog issue.

Q: I've been struck by just how devastating the backlog has been to people's lives.

A: It is what makes it so important to try to fix. We are trying to make it better for as many people as fast as we can.

Q: People know about Social Security, but I'm not sure how many think about the disability program.

A: In terms of the public perception, they associate us primarily with retirement. And that is unfortunate, because we are an important part of the safety net generally, and the disability programs are a key part of that.

Q: Folks say the difference between today and 10 years ago is that it is not unusual for someone to die waiting for a hearing.

A: I think that is actually not true. We are actually trying to look at those numbers. There are a significant number of people who die. I don't deny that it happens. But when you are talking about a sick group of people, and most of the people are sick, you are going to have that happen statistically a certain percentage of the time.

Q: How stressful is your job?

A: If you are doing this job right, you can't help internalizing some of this stuff. I am taking more hypertension medication than I was a year ago.

Q: A lot of folks say the backlog problem was caused by a lack of resources.

A: It is extremely complicated. Congress has come in under the president's budget 15 straight years until this year. Maybe it is partly our fault. I think we had a reputation on the Hill for being a "can do" agency. It was easy for Congress to keep throwing things at us. I think a lot of people miss the sheer size of this system. Right now, we have about 2.6 million people every year applying for disability benefits, and just under 600,000 show up at the hearing and appeals process. These are enormously complicated files and getting more so every year.

Q: I know you have heard this —- that the system is set up to discourage people.

A: I understand how it feels that way. I don't believe that Congress ever had that intent at all.

Q: You said the bar to meet disability is real high.

A: Essentially, you are supposed to be unable to work at all, or to any substantial degree, for a period of 12 months or more. That is tougher than most private-sector policies. That is tougher than the [Veterans Affairs] standard. That is something that Congress decides, and it is a tough balance because this all comes out of trust fund money.

Q: There have been reports that even with all your efforts the backlog continues to grow?

A: We are nine months into this fiscal year, and we are at an increase of about 18,000 cases for the year. I am not happy about that. But the rate keeps going down. If you look historically, it went up at about 75,000 cases a year for many years in this decade.

When I started here, we had about 65,000 cases that had waited 1,000 days or more. Some of those cases had been waiting 1,400 days. We set a goal to get rid of them by the end of the year, and we hit that goal. This fiscal year we set the goal at 900 days. We slightly are ahead of schedule.

Q: Let's talk about Atlanta. Why are we so bad? Why are we so slow?

A: The system as a whole was under-resourced. But the money we had was not distributed equally around the country. I don't know why the Atlanta and Chicago regions received less support given the level of filings. These regions have been the biggest beneficiaries of the reallocation of resources, and there is more coming.