Rise and Fall in Cases Pending an Administrative Law Judge Hearing: New Actuarial Study

laptop and a judge gavelThe “great recession” that began at the end of 2007 contributed to a rise in initial applications for Social Security disability benefits that peaked in 2010. This surge in initial applications led to a similar rise in appeals for a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). Because the surge in appeals for a hearing exceeded the capacity to complete hearings quickly, the number of cases that had appealed but were still pending an ALJ determination rose. In fact, the number of disability applicants with an ALJ hearing pending rose up to the end of 2016. However, with the improving economy, declining appeals, hiring more judges, additional funding provided by the Congress to address the hearings backlog in fiscal years 2017 and 2018, and implementation of the Compassionate and Responsive Service (CARES) plan, the number of cases pending an ALJ hearing declined in 2017, and is continuing to decline today.

As the number of claimants pending an ALJ determination rose through 2016, so too did the number of these applicants who died while waiting rise. But with the number of applicants pending a hearing declining in 2017, so too did the number who died while waiting begin to drop. With continued low unemployment, and declining numbers of applicants and appeals to ALJs, we expect the numbers of applicants pending a hearing will continue to drop, as will the number of deaths among those waiting for an ALJ hearing.

In Actuarial Note 159, “Probability of Death While Pending an Administrative Law Judge Determination,” that we are releasing today, we provide the number of applicants pending an ALJ determination and the number of these individuals who died while waiting for each year 2006 through 2017. We also provide the death rate among those pending an ALJ determination on an age-sex adjusted basis, and show that this death rate has changed little, declining slightly over these years.

Finally, we compare the death rate among disability applicants pending an ALJ determination to the death rate of individuals at the same age and sex in the general population, and to the death rate of those individuals who have been determined to be disabled and are in their first 2 years of benefit entitlement. As a consequence of the strict requirements for severe medically determinable impairments, applicants for Social Security disability benefits tend to have higher death rates than the average persons in our population at the same age and sex. While the death rate for applicants pending an ALJ determination is two to three times as high as that for the general population, it is only about one-fourth as high as the death rate for workers who have been awarded disabled worker benefits, in their first two years of benefit entitlement.

Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary evaluates trends in demographic, economic, and programmatic experience, including mortality rates, and publishes a variety of regular reports and special studies. The main Social Security Administration website provides links to information about Social Security’s disability benefits programs, including a wealth of information to help you secure today and tomorrow.

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