Date: July 2, 2002 Contacts: Christine Stencel, Media Relations Officer Chris Dobbins, Media Relations Assistant (202) 334-2138; e-mail <firstname.lastname@example.org>
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Social Security Disability Programs Need Fundamental Change
For more than 50 years, the Social Security Administration's (SSA) disability programs have provided a financial safety net for Americans unable to work because of disabling conditions. However, changes in the demographics of claimants over time and a rapid, unexpected surge in the beneficiary rolls have seriously strained the agency's staff and resources, causing backlogs in the processing of claims and appeals, and contributing to inconsistencies in eligibility decisions. Recognizing that the situation will only worsen as baby boomers reach ages at which disabilities are more likely, SSA in the mid-1990s embarked on a major effort to manage the programs more effectively. Its principal goals were to re-engineer the claims system, including redesigning the eligibility determination process, and to estimate the current and potential numbers and characteristics of people with work disabilities through a national survey.
If SSA is to continue to adequately serve the ever-growing rolls of beneficiaries, it desperately needs to fundamentally rethink its systems and services, says a new report from the National Academies' Institute of Medicine and National Research Council. The agency should create a long-term research program to explore what is needed to address increasing demands and to provide the basis for improvements in the disability determination process. In addition, an ongoing monitoring system, rather than a single survey, is essential to understand the changing population of people with work-related disabilities and predict their likelihood of applying for benefits.
The report presents the results of an expert committee's review of SSA's plans for redesigning the eligibility determination process and developing a national survey of disability. It provides feedback on the design and content of SSA's proposed survey, including sample size and distribution, data collection and response rates, and clarity and validity of questions. The agency should undertake research to develop a full understanding of work disability, including factors in both the social and physical work environments that affect people's ability to work. Also, adequate time and resources should be devoted to research, develop, and field-test SSA's proposed complex national survey. However, because analysts and policy-makers need continuous, up-to-date information to manage and adapt the programs to the changing needs of claimants, the agency should develop a permanent work-disability monitoring system consisting of regular national surveys and a smaller set of core measures to be used between surveys, the report says.
In reviewing SSA's plan for improving the disability determination process, the committee called for establishing objective criteria to measure the performance of the existing system and whether proposed changes would lead to improvements. It also pointed out the need to evaluate how certain factors such as age, work experience, and education may influence a person's ability to work or adapt to disabilities. SSA also should initiate a research program to test models that emphasize rehabilitation and return to work in the context of providing benefits. However, without the infusion of new resources -- of both dollars and qualified and diverse researchers -- SSA will not be able to make the changes necessary to address the needs of Americans with disabilities.
A committee roster follows. The study was sponsored by the Social Security Administration. The Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council are private, nonprofit organizations that provide advice on science and health policy issues under a congressional charter granted to the National Academy of Sciences.