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"A system in crisis": Federal disability programs force tough choices

Brenda Powell suffered a stroke and was in debilitating pain when she called the Social Security Administration last year to seek disability benefits.

The former Louisiana state office worker sometimes struggled to write her name or carry a glass of water. Powell, then 62, believed he could no longer work, and was worried about how he would pay for medical care with only a $433 monthly pension.

Although the Social Security Administration agreed that Powell’s condition limited his work, the agency denied his initial application for Supplemental Security Income. He had the choice of appealing the decision, which could take months or years to resolve, or retiring early. The latter option would pay her $302 a month now but permanently reduce the full Social Security retirement payment she would be eligible for at age 66 and 10 months.

“I didn’t know what to do. These decisions are not easy,” said Powell, who lives in Alexandria, Louisiana, about 200 miles northwest of New Orleans. He decided to appeal the decision but quickly retired in the meantime.

“I had to have more money to pay my bills,” she said. “I had nothing left for gas.”

Each year, thousands of people who are disabled and unable to work consider taking early retirement benefits from Social Security. The funded federal disability system admits it has been hampered by delays and dysfunction, even as more than 1 million people await decisions on their benefits applications.

The United States, which has one of the least generous disability programs among developed Western nations, denies most initial claims, leaving applicants to endure a lengthy appeals process.

At the same time, Social Security agents may neglect to explain the financial loss of receipt retirement benefits Too soon, say attorneys who help patients file disability claims. The result is a growing population of vulnerable people who are stuck between a proverbial rock and a hard place – agreeing to live on little money while they wait or pay significantly less for the rest of their lives.

“They don’t have the luxury of waiting,” said Charles T. Hall, a disability attorney based in Raleigh, North Carolina “Most people need money now, and you can get early retirement benefits in two months or less.”

In countries where more than a quarter of residents have a disability, the Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs are intended to provide financial assistance to those who cannot work.

Retirement experts generally advise senior citizens to tap into them Social security benefits They delay as much as they can, to maximize the amount of money they get from the federal government. For someone born after 1960, taking benefits at age 62 — the earliest age people qualify for — instead of 67 reduces each monthly payment by 30% for the rest of a person’s life, said Richard Johnson, a senior fellow and director. Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organization’s program on retirement policy.

Anyone applying for Supplemental Security Income, or taking early retirement, will receive $914 a month if they can prove they are over 65, blind, or have a disabling medical condition. Social Security Disability Insurance provides an average monthly benefit of $1,483 to those who suffer a disabling injury or illness and pays a federal tax that was previously deducted from their paychecks.

Social Security agents will notify people of their ability to receive early retirement benefits. But they can’t explain the downsides, says Sam Byker, CEO and founder of Atticus, a California-based group that connects people seeking disability benefits with attorneys across the country. His firm found that of 2,000 clients seeking Social Security disability insurance, 44% were taking early retirement.

Disability takes too long, and the decision about who gets approval can seem arbitrary, Byker said. “It doesn’t count,” he said.

An initial decision on an application for disability benefits can take more than seven months on average, according to a March letter signed by more than 100 members of Congress.

Most callers to the Social Security Administration are unable to reach an agent, and people seeking local field office assistance with an application can wait at least a month for an appointment, the letter said.

Social Security Administration field office in North Carolina

More than 1,200 Social Security Administration field offices exist across the country, such as one in Charlotte, North Carolina. People seeking help with disability applications can wait at least a month for an appointment.

Fred Klassen-Kelly

Earlier this year, Acting Social Security Commissioner Kilolo Kizakaji warned in a letter to congressional leaders that months-long delays in processing disability applications and phone assistance could worsen in 2023, even as officials vowed to improve services over time.

In a written statement, Social Security Administration spokesman Darren Lutz acknowledged that wait times are “too long,” citing inconsistent and inadequate funding, staffing shortages and other challenges. The company declined to make officials available for phone calls to discuss the matter in more detail.

Unemployment is compounded by disabled people with little or no income, who often retire early because they struggle to pay for basics like housing, food and medicine. In some cases, people end up homeless or die waiting for their disability benefits, advocates told KFF Health News.

The problems could hit the South and Appalachia particularly hard, since these regions have older workers than other parts of the country, more workers in manufacturing, and people with less educational attainment who rely more on disability benefits.

“It’s a crisis system,” says Ida Comerford, managing partner at the Kenneth Hiller Law Firm, which handles disability cases in New York, Michigan and Illinois. “It won’t cut it. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen.”

The Social Security Administration says its staff must inform applicants of all the benefits they can receive and provide them with enough detail to make an informed decision.

For someone with no income and no ability to cover their expenses, it may make sense to take early retirement benefits, said Kurt Jarnowski, a former Social Security Administration regional communications director who now works as a retirement consultant.

If a person has a medical condition that suggests a short life expectancy, Czarnowski said, it’s wise to consider making a small payment now rather than waiting for a larger check later.

But there is a huge financial benefit for those who can wait, Czarnowski said.

Individuals born after 1960 can collect full retirement benefits at age 67. In addition, every year they Wait for Social Security to collect Between the ages of 67 and 70, their monthly check increases by 8%.

“Ultimately, it’s a longevity decision,” Czarnowski said.

Hall also says he advises certain clients to take early retirement benefits while applying for disability. If the person wins their disability case, they can collect full retirement benefits instead of a reduced amount, he said.

But Atticus’ biker says that strategy comes with risks. Most applicants need an attorney to help them get disability through the lengthy appeals process. But lawyers are less likely to take on a client who is already receiving early retirement benefits because that scenario significantly reduces the money they can make in a lawsuit, he said.

According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonprofit research organization, more than 60% of applications for Supplemental Security Income are denied. About two-thirds of applications for Social Security disability insurance are denied, the group says.

Six months after she applied, the Social Security Administration notified Powell in a February letter that her claim for Supplemental Security Income had been denied. The letter states that although medical evidence shows that her condition limits her ability to hold a job, she can work while maintaining her skills as a finance assistant.

Lutz, the Social Security spokesman, said in a written statement that privacy laws prevent the agency from answering questions about Powell’s case. Lutz said the agency uses a “strict definition of disability.”

Powell has hired an attorney and filed an appeal, but he doesn’t know when the case will be resolved

“I don’t want to say ‘poor, I’m poor,'” Powell said. “It wasn’t easy. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News (KHN), is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism on health issues and is one of KFF’s core operating programs — an independent source of health policy research, polling and journalism. .

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