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

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The Social Security program, known for its retirement benefits, also provides disability payments to people of all ages who can't work because of a physical or mental condition. But the process required get those benefits can be a bureaucratic nightmare, with applicants — who tend to be older and poorer than most Americans — sometimes waiting years to start collecting.

One measure of just how arduous that process can be: From 2008 to 2019, almost 110,000 people died as they awaited an appeal after initially being denied Social Security disability benefits, according to a new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan federal agency. Between 2014 and 2019, 50,000 people filed for bankruptcy waiting for their cases to be resolved.

The appeals backlog swelled to a median wait time of 839 days — more than two years — in 2015, although by last year the waiting game had shrunk to 506 days, the GAO said.

"Horrible outcomes"

"We have had clients who have died while they were waiting for hearings," Claire Grandison, a staff attorney at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, where she works on applications for so-called Supplemental Security Income (SSI), told CBS MoneyWatch. "We have had clients with horrible outcomes — evictions, utility shut-offs and declining health even before the point that they pass away."

The Social Security Administration operates two programs that provide disability payments: SSI, which offers financial assistance to working-age adults who can't work because of a physical or mental disability; and Disability Insurance (DI), which is targeted to lower-income people. 

The backlog of appeals swelled after the Great Recession, partly due to an increase in applications. Grandison now worries that the economic chaos caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which has driven unemployment to levels not seen since the Great Depression, will again cause the appeals process to bog down after the Social Security Administration made progress in recent years. Disability applications have dropped during the health crisis, but could jump once the worst is over, she said.

Do appeals work?

People seeking disability benefits have the right to appeal if the Social Security Administration denies their claim. And most applicants are turned down the first time they apply, with only a quarter of initial applicants approved in some years, according to data from the SSA.

But an appeal has a good chance of succeeding, with the GAO finding that 49% of people who filed appeals between 2008 to 2019 and whose cases were concluded within that period were ultimately successful in receiving disability benefits. 

The findings underscore the need to whittle 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," Sanders said in a statement. "People with disabilities trying to access their earned benefits are forced to wait years before they even get a hearing."

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