State Cuts Delay Social Security Disability Benefits

Michael J. Astrue, the Commissioner of Social Security, says benefits for tens of thousands of people with disabilities are being delayed by furloughs and layoffs of state employees around the country.  State officials have announced furloughs, layoffs and hiring freezes to help balance budgets battered by the recession.

Claims are evaluated by state employees, but the federal government reimburses states for the salaries of those employees and pays the full cost of benefits for people found to be disabled.

“We pay the full freight,” Mr. Astrue said. “States do not save any money when they furlough or lay off these employees. They only delay payments to disabled citizens who rely on the monthly benefits.”

The cutbacks come as disability claims are rising because of high unemployment, the weak economy and the aging of the baby boom generation.

The Social Security Administration expects nearly 3 million new disability claims this year, up from 2.6 million in 2008. Each month the agency pays $12 billion in disability benefits to more than 13 million people.

The Social Security system is so clogged with disputed disability claims that some people wait years for hearings.  The stimulus bill signed by President Obama in February provided $500 million to “reduce the backlog of disability claims.”

But the impact of such spending could be offset by state cutbacks.  In a report last month, Patrick P. O’Carroll Jr., the inspector general of the Social Security Administration, said that at least five states accounting for 15 percent of all disability cases – California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts and Oregon – had decided to furlough some disability workers, freeze hiring or impose other restrictions. Social Security officials said about 10 other states were taking or considering similar actions.

The agency said it was looking for ways to avoid the delays. The federal government could, for example, take over work performed by the states, but such a change could probably not be made without action by Congress.