Adrianne Gunter’s multiple sclerosis had gotten so bad, she could no longer work or go to school. Desperate to make ends meet, she applied for Social Security disability benefits. Despite her well-documented illness, the Social Security Administration initially turned down her application, and she had to file an appeal. After waiting a burdensome 788 days for a hearing, and depleting all of her savings, she was finally able to argue her case before a judge, who agreed her disability was severe enough that she could not work.
Adrianne had to wait two long years before she could qualify for the disability benefits that she needs to survive. Unfortunately, for many other people struggling to get by, the wait time could get even longer in 2019, if Social Security forces Pennsylvania to introduce a new step to the appeals process for disability determinations, called reconsideration review.
When someone applies for Social Security disability benefits, the case is first evaluated by a state disability agency. If the state agency finds that the person does not have a disability, the person can request a hearing before a Social Security judge. Reconsideration review is a mandatory second review by the state agency before the person can request a hearing. This second review does not usually involve any new evidence or contacting a claimant — it is often just a “rubber stamp” of the first decision, delaying the person’s opportunity to make a case directly to a judge.
Social Security allowed Pennsylvania to abolish the reconsideration review step years ago. But starting in April , Social Security is planning to add reconsideration back to the appeals process. As a result, Pennsylvanians with disabilities will have to appeal not once, but two times before getting to talk to a judge about their disability claims.
Social Security says that reconsideration will allow some applicants to receive decisions sooner. But the percentage of people who will receive an earlier decision as a result of reconsideration review is very small, around 12 percent, per the agency’s numbers.
And the costs of this additional review step are huge. Adding a new layer of bureaucratic red tape will extend the already too-long appeals process. Social Security data show that most people will have to wait more than 100 extra days before they can argue their cases before a judge. That’s on top of the two years many people already have to wait.
Pennsylvanians already have some of the longest waits in the country for decisions on disability cases. During those long waits, people deplete their savings accounts or go into debt. They go without basic necessities that could keep them healthy, like prescription drugs, doctor’s visits, and fresh food. Some people fall into homelessness. Pennsylvanians with disabilities should not be pushed into these positions.
Even worse, adding this level of review will prevent many qualified applicants from pursuing the appeals process. Many people will become discouraged by the delays. And others will miss extra appeals deadlines because they are struggling with their disabilities. Experts from the Office of the Chief Actuary estimate that roughly 7,500 applications would be withdrawn each year because of the new red tape. Adrianne says that that if she had to go through another step, she would have probably given up because she was so sick and going through the process was so discouraging.
If uniformity if the goal, let’s instead raise our standards in all states, and eliminate reconsideration nationwide. States like Pennsylvania that do not currently require reconsideration should not be forced to reintroduce it. We are making progress on our wait times. Reconsideration, we fear, would detract from this progress.