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Social Security disability benefit applicants wait months for approval

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (KRDO) -- Applicants for Social Security disability benefits are waiting months, and sometimes even years, to be approved.

Disability benefits through the Social Security Administration (SSA) provides monthly stipends to people who haven’t worked for a long period of time due to a physical or mental disability.

The approval process is complex and involves multiple steps to verify an applicant meets the income threshold and has medical proof of their disability. Because of the complexity, many times applicants hire someone to help them file, like Gerald Riley.

He has been helping applicants file disability benefits since 1994. He said the processing time has significantly increased since the pandemic.

The initial filing process takes about eight to 12 months, he said. According to data on the Social Security Administration’s website, the average processing time in December for a disability benefit application was 7 months. Before the pandemic, it was only four months.

“I have clients who filed early last year and they're still waiting for an initial decision,” Riley said. “I have a client, he filed his initial request for a decision in March of 2022, and we're still waiting.”

And this doesn’t include the appeal process. Riley said more often than not applicants are denied on their first application, including about 80% of his clients. The appeal process adds another year.

“Total time is about 24 months,” Riley said. “Prior to the pandemic, it was running about 18 months. It was a lot faster.”

Since October 2021, Riley said he had three clients die while waiting for approval.

The Independence Center is a local nonprofit that helps residents apply for benefits. Ashley Billington, the organization's Older Individuals with Blindness program manager told 13 Investigates the Colorado Springs Social Security office is operating at 40% capacity.

“We are aware of Independence Center consumers who have been forced to sell off their household items to make ends meet as they wait more than a year for SSA to make a determination,” Billington said via email.

The regional Social Security Administration office in Denver said the backlog in application approvals is due to staffing shortages following the pandemic. It told 13 Investigates it’s addressing the situation by bringing back retired employees, implementing a hiring surge and reevaluating the disability process.

“Some factors driving the backlog include difficulty hiring—as experienced in the larger labor market-- historically high attrition in the DDSs – about 20 percent for the last two years for disability examiners— which we are assessing for drivers, increasing medical evidence that must be reviewed, and shortages of medical experts to conduct consultative exams and review cases,” said Shayla Hagburg, the Social Security Administration regional communications director.

But Riley said the solution starts with more funding from Congress.

“The key issue is allocating more money to the Social Security Administration so they hire more people,” he said. “Congress over the years has been notoriously bad at allocating money to the Social Security Administration.”

Jeff Nesbit, the deputy commissioner for communications with the Social Security Administration, asked Congress for an additional $800 million of funding this year that would “allow [it] to maintain [its] current service levels without further deterioration.”

13 Investigates contacted Congressman Doug Lamborn and Sen. John Hickenlooper but never received comments about the backlog or funding for SSA.

Sen. Michael Bennet's spokeperson responded days after the story aired and said, "Sen. Bennet believes it is unacceptable that Colorado residents are waiting years for crucial benefits, and believes we should work to ensure the Social Security Administration has the funding it needs to provide Coloradans with their benefits in a timely manner. A core service his office offers to Coloradans is assistance with accessing federal benefits, including Social Security disability benefits, and his team stands ready to assist those in need. Coloradans can visit https://www.bennet.senate.gov/ or call 303-455-7600 for help.”

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Quinn Ritzdorf

Quinn is a reporter with the 13 Investigates team. Learn more about him here.

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