FACT CHECK: Did 10,000 People Die Because Of Social Security Disability Wait Times?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed Monday that 10,000 people died because of long processing times for Social Security disability benefits.

“We have to deal with the issue of [the] Social Security Administration not having the resources they need to provide service to the people. According to The Washington Post, 10,000 people with disability died last year because the Social Security Administration was not able to process their claims,” Sanders said on “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Verdict: Unsubstantiated

Just over 10,000 people died while waiting for a decision on Social Security disability benefits in fiscal year 2017, but there’s no way to know whether they would have otherwise lived.

Fact Check:

The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays out benefits to people with disabilities that prevent them from working. People with cancer, back pain, heart disease, mental illness or other qualifying disabilities can receive benefits. If a claim for disability benefits is denied, applicants can appeal the decision and an administrative law judge from the SSA will hear the appeal.

The agency has a large backlog of cases, and the problem is getting worse. Over 1.1 million people were waiting for an appeal hearing at the end of FY 2016, up from 705,000 at the end of FY 2011. Average wait times for hearings increased to 543 days in FY 2016, up from 426 days in FY 2011.

According to data obtained by The Washington Post, 10,002 people died while waiting for a hearing in FY 2017. That’s a 15 percent increase from FY 2016, when 8,699 people died while waiting for a hearing. The Social Security Inspector General found that the average age of death of claimants still waiting for a decision was 50 years old.

“It’s plausible that many would have lived longer had they received benefits, as this is a very low-income population, and coping with disability is easier if one has the means to purchase care and supports, and of course if one receives medical care paid by Medicare,” Benjamin Veghte, vice president for policy at the National Academy of Social Insurance, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email. “But there is no hard data on this.”

Without hard data, Sanders’ claim that 10,000 people died because of the SSA backlog cannot be verified. Those who ultimately do receive disability benefits are still at least three times as likely to die as other people their age. One-fifth of men and one-sixth of women who get disability benefits die within five years of receiving benefits. Some cases stay active after a claimant dies because a dependent or spouse could still claim benefits.

Many claimants could have eventually been denied benefits anyway. Sixty-five percent of disability claims are denied.

Experts say the agency doesn’t have enough resources for clerks, lawyers and administrative law judges to process the claims. SSA administrative funding has declined in real terms since 2010 even though enrollment in programs has increased.

“We suffered under a hiring freeze for almost a year, even before the federal government put its hiring freeze in effect last January. And although the hiring freeze was lifted … we don’t have the replacement for all the people who’ve left. So we are operating at a deficit when it comes to staff,” Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges (AALJ), told TheDCNF.

Sanders blamed the appeals processing backlog on inadequate funding, but Zahm said the system also needs substantial structural reform.

“This is not a well-oiled machine over here. This is bureaucracy that is slow to make changes, that resists changes, and that has an inefficient process. We could do more, even with our current limited resources, if we changed the way we do work,” said Zahm.

Zahm said she has suggested to the SSA several reforms to increase hearing efficiency to no avail. Some reforms, like dismissing cases that claimants have abandoned earlier and streamlining office management structure, could save the SSA millions of dollars, according to the AALJ.

“The SSA and Congress saw it coming long ago, but took only tepid steps to prevent the backlog from growing larger and harming Americans with disabilities and their families,” Helena Berger, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities, wrote in The Washington Times.

Others say the disability program has grown too large. About 10.2 million people receive Social Security disability benefits with an average payment of $1,171. There were 7.8 million beneficiaries in December 2006.

Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney called the program “very wasteful” on “Face the Nation” in March. The SSA reported $6.6 billion in overpayments from FY 2011 to FY 2015.

Sanders’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter