Successfully applying for Social Security disability benefits can seem like a daunting prospect.
Claims for Social Security Disability Insurance — which pays out $143 billion each year to more than 11 million Americans unable to work because of a serious illness or impairment — have been ticking upward. The Social Security Administration received nearly 2.7 million applications for the program in 2013, up from 1.9 million a decade earlier, according to its most recent annual report.
The rate of applicants who are ultimately approved, however, has remained slim — averaging just 36 percent for claims filed from 2004 to 2013, according to the report. About a quarter are awarded benefits on their initial claim, while another 2 percent are approved on appeal and 11 percent at hearings.
"The reality is, more often than not, you'll be denied," said Stephen Dunn, a staff attorney with the New York Legal Assistance Group, which provides free legal services to low-income New Yorkers.
In fact, waits for a hearing can stretch the process out for a year or longer, he said.
Congress has been looking at possible reforms for years that could streamline the process without sacrificing the rigor necessary to nix fraudulent claims, said former Congressman Earl Pomeroy, a co-chair of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget's SSDI Solutions Initiative. Congress pledged last fall to address the issue, after bailing out SSDI in its budget deal — using temporary measures to extend the program fund's solvency through 2022.
But that's unlikely to provide short-term relief.
"My guess is, while reforms are being studied and proposed, it's unlikely that in the very near future, Congress is going to enact anything sweeping by way of process reforms," said Pomeroy.