Pursuing Social Security Disability Benefits in a Culture of Denial

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Investigations into high denial rates for applications for Social Security disability benefits have caused some to name the Social Security Administration’s (SSA's) strategies a "culture of denial." With an approval rate of only 30-35% at the initial application stage and 1o% at the reconsideration stage, this doesn’t seem far from the truth.

Study Shows Most Claimants Do Not Appeal

A report by CBS news stated that most applicants do not bother to appeal a denial the first time they are disapproved for benefits. Last year, two-thirds of all applicants gave up after their first denial, meaning millions of Americans who paid into the system and quite possibly were deserving of benefits never received assistance. And most of the people who continued fighting for benefits were faced with long wait times lasting over one year. 

CBS's two-month investigative report called the denials part of a "system whose own standards have been called into question." SSA's recent budget cuts and high staff turnover has resulted in longer backlogs of cases. Medical experts who are rendering opinions outside their specialtie, and inexperienced examiners being pressured to disapprove claims in order to keep costs down are all factoring into the culture of denial.

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue commented that "it's a very tough standard…and you can argue whether that should be the standard or not, but I'm stuck with that." However, feedback from former SSA staff has caused distress and apprehension among the disabled. Trisha Cardillo, a former SSA employee who reviewed over 200 disability cases a month out of Ohio, stated "there were a lot of times when I was fighting with management because I wanted to approve a claim…and I had to go through so many steps and jump through so many hurdles to do that, it just seemed ridiculous." Cardillo explained that in essence, there is a “quota system” in which “each state has different numbers and they know that a certain percentage of people, once denied, will never file an appeal." 

Getting Congressional Help

A prime example of this culture of denial is Mr. Robert Veneziali’s case. He is a 38-year-old applicant for disability benefits who is diagnosed with rapidly progressing multiple sclerosis. After applying for benefits, he was turned down and told that his case could be re-examined in another 18 months. Desperate for assistance, he turned to his congressman Rep. John Hall.

With the assistance of congressional representatives who are voicing concerns over long wait times and high denial rates, perhaps the system that Social Security is currently operating under will be improved. Due to concerns expressed by the public and members of Congress, the SSA suspended some of their processes that were creating difficulties for claimants at the hearing level. More than 500 comments were submitted criticizing the proposed rule that put restrictions on the submission of evidence, and this type of resistance caused Commissioner Astrue to officially suspend that rule in 2008. This leaves open the possibility that with enough public concern and the assistance of our elected officials, the SSA will make changes to better the system, and eventually this “culture of denial” will change.

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