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Report by Pa. group finds accessing Social Security disability benefits is too difficult

  • Kate Giammarise/WESA
Social Security Administration field offices remain closed; they could open by March 30.

 Patrick Semansky/ AP Photo

Social Security Administration field offices remain closed; they could open by March 30.

Though field offices have reopened for in-person services, there continue to be obstacles for people seeking Social Security disability benefits, according to a report released earlier this month by a legal advocacy group.

The report blames years of underfunding, compounded with lengthy pandemic-related office closures, for the hardship in accessing Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, two major benefit programs for people with disabilities.

The Social Security Administration has issued over half a million fewer SSI awards than if it had continued at pre-pandemic rates, the report notes.

“This sharp decline has disproportionately impacted Black and Brown people. Nowhere have SSI recipients been hit harder than Pennsylvania, which saw the largest percentage decline of all 50 states, with SSI awards falling over 26% from 2019 to 2020,” according to the report from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

SSI and SSDI are “critical lifelines for millions of people with disabilities,” said Chi-Ser Tran, a supervising attorney at Community Legal Services and one of the report’s authors. “But more than a decade of underfunding has made it extraordinarily difficult for people with disabilities to access the Social Security benefits that they need to survive. When people apply for benefits, they can’t reach the Social Security Administration for help over the phone or in person. And SSA staff often lack adequate training or customer service skills. Nationally, nearly half of the calls to SSA go unanswered.”

Experts have said federal underfunding, and the resulting staffing issues, have made it harder for the agency in recent years to give adequate customer service. Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, in a letter earlier this year, suggested creating a Beneficiary Advocate position in the Social Security Administration to help ensure the best possible service.

Among the problems the report identified:

  • Claimants cannot readily reach the Social Security Administration for assistance
  • People with limited English cannot access benefits or services
  • Reporting income to the agency is “unnecessarily difficult”
  • Inadequate training leads staff to wrongfully deny some benefits

Tran said it was not clear why Pennsylvania saw a larger decline in benefits than other states.
Among the recommendations the report offers: making sure the Social Security Administration creates more user-friendly systems for income reporting that can accommodate people with disabilities, don’t penalize those unable to report income because of technical problems, and for the agency to train staff to work better with people with disabilities. It also says Congress must prioritize funding for the Social Security Administration.

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