Social Security Disability:

Efforts to Improve Claims Process Have Fallen Short and Further Action is Needed

GAO-02-826T: Published: Jun 11, 2002. Publicly Released: Jun 11, 2002.

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This testimony discusses Social Security Administration (SSA) improvements in the claims process for its two disability programs, Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Managing its disability caseloads with fair, consistent, and timely eligibility decisions in the face of resource constraints has become one of SSA's most pressing management challenges. SSA has spent more than $39 million over the past 7 years to test and implement initiatives designed to improve the timeliness, accuracy, and consistency of its disability decisions and to make the process more efficient and understandable for claimants. These have included efforts to improve the initial claims process as well as handling appeals of denied claims. The results to date have been disappointing. SSA's two tests to improve the initial claims process produced some benefits; however, both initiatives as tested would have significantly raised costs, and one would have lengthened the wait for final decisions for many claimants. As a result, SSA is considering additional changes to one of these initiatives and has shelved the other. One initiative to change the process for handling appealed claims in SSA's hearing offices has resulted in even slower case processing and larger backlogs of pending claims. A second initiative has reduced the processing times for a separate group of appealed claims, though far less than expected. Moreover, a cross-cutting initiative to update the SSA's quality assurance program--a goal the SSA has held since 1994--is still in the planning stage. Finally, SSA's plans to improve its disability claims process relied upon hoped for technological improvements. However, SSA failed to design and develop a software application to automate the disability claims process after a 7-year effort.

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