Monday, February 11, 2008

Bush budget proposes funding to ease SS disability backlogs--but not enough

President Bush's fiscal 2009 budget proposal will help the Social Security Administration tackle staffing shortages and a backlog on retirement and disability claims, the agency's commissioner said this week.

The president requested $10.3 billion for Social Security's administrative expenses, a $580 million increase over what Congress appropriated in fiscal 2008. The funding boost would be the largest increase the agency has received in a decade, and will help offset significant backlogs in claims, said SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue.

"The Social Security Administration is now at a crossroads," Astrue said. "Due to the aging of the baby boomers, we are facing an avalanche of retirement and disability claims at the same time that we must address large backlogs due to years of increasing workloads and limited resources."

The number of workers receiving Social Security retirement benefits is expected to increase by 13 million over the next decade. At the agency's Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, there is a backlog of 750,000 hearing requests, up more than 300,000 since 2000. Over the last seven years, processing times for disability hearings have grown by 200 days, burdening disabled workers and their families, Astrue said.

Many of SSA's problems stem from the 4,000 jobs eliminated in the past two years. The result is longer wait times and more customers. Astrue said more than half of the people who call agency field offices now receive a busy signal. "Adequate funding is critical for fiscal 2009 and must be sustained in the years ahead," he said. "Without it, SSA's service crisis will deepen at a time when our aging population is increasingly counting on Social Security programs."

The president's budget proposal is $100 million less than the figure Astrue cited during congressional testimony as necessary to fully restore workforce cuts and invest in technology. Nevertheless, the commissioner said Monday that the proposed boost would greatly help the agency attack many of its most pressing challenges.


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