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SSA steps in to speed disability claims delayed by state furloughs

Mar. 25, 2011 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue wrote every state governor to explain that Disability Determination Services operations are fully federally funded.
Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue wrote every state governor to explain that Disability Determination Services operations are fully federally funded. (Staff)

State cutbacks, including furloughs in 19 states, have slowed more than $33 million in disability benefit payments for more than 121,000 households. But efforts by the Social Security Administration have kept the impact from being as severe as once expected, according to the agency's inspector general.

State Disability Determination Services workers normally make the initial call on millions of claims each year for Supplemental Security Income and Disability Insurance. Even though their salaries come from the federal Treasury, that hasn't stopped state governments from including those workers in furloughs aimed at saving money. Two years ago, for example, then-California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said it would be demoralizing to exempt one group of state employees from cuts.

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue decried the practice and wrote every state governor to explain that DDS operations are fully federally funded. Vice President Joe Biden, in a July 2009 letter to the head of the National Governors Association, also urged against hiring restrictions or furloughs for DDS workers. Apart from the delays in getting help to disabled Americans, Biden wrote, a speedy determination process also benefits state budgets. "The faster the DDS can approve claims for benefits, the sooner many applicants move from state to federal support and medical coverage," he said.

SSA's efforts helped in winning at least partial furlough exemptions in three states, the IG found. Social Security officials also created special teams last year that helped to pick up more than 167,000 claims from states resorting to DDS furloughs. That strategy was bolstered by $500 million in Recovery Act money that allowed DDS offices to add more staff and cover increased overtime for processing claims.

"We found that SSA had been proactive," the inspector general said. In a March 2009 report, the IG had recommended some of the steps adopted by the agency.

The IG in November 2009 predicted delays of more than $126 million in benefit payments in the upcoming 12 months.

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