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Chart Collection: How long does it take to get a disability decision?

June 26, 2017

The Social Security Administration (SSA) operates two large programs that provide cash assistance to individuals with disabilities: the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. To allow access to these programs, SSA must first find that an applicant has a qualifying disability, a process that can take months or even years.

There is large variation among applicants in the time it takes to get a final disability decision, and that variation is largely dependent on how many times an applicant appeals an unfavorable decision. This variation is explored in the chart collection below.

The charts below are interactive, meaning you can hover the mouse over the lines to see exact data points, and filter the data by disability program or year. Note that in all the charts, decision times exclude all applications that are denied due to non-medical eligibility screens that occur before the disability determination process begins.

The first chart shows the average time it takes to get a final disability decision, based on the fiscal year in which an application was filed (shown by the dark blue line). For applications filed in FY 2010, for example, it took 235 days on average to get a final decision. Note that the decision times for applications filed in more recent years start to become skewed as more and more applications are still pending. This means that no final decision has been reached. Currently pending applications will necessarily have a final decision time longer than the average, meaning the annual averages will get higher as those decisions come in.

Looking at the average time for a decision a bit misleading, however, since applicants have widely different experiences with decision times. Specifically, the average time is much higher than the median time due to a relatively small number of cases that take upwards of a year for a final decision. The next chart shows the distribution in disability decision time, showing that 25% of applicants get a decision in less than three months and half of applicants getting a decision in less than five months.

As mentioned above, the time it takes to get a disability decision is highly dependent on the level of adjudication reached in the process. The initial disability decision is made by a state disability determination services (DDS) office, and unfavorable decisions can be reviewed by the DDS through a reconsideration. After the DDS decision, unfavorable decisions can be appealed to the SSA hearing level, and again to the SSA appeals council. Applicants can then appeal an unfavorable decision to the federal court system.

The next chart shows how long it takes, on average, to get a decision based on the final level of adjudication reached by the applicant.

While applicants that reach the hearing level or beyond can wait upwards of two years to receive a final decision, most cases never make it that far. The next chart shows the number of final decisions rendered at each level of adjudication. For applications filed in FY 2010, more than 71% of applicants had a final decision made at the initial level, and less than two-tenths of a percent of decisions make it past the hearing level.

On average, allowances take several weeks longer than denials — 40 days longer for applications filed in 2010. This is mostly due to the disproportionate number of allowances made at the hearing level (compared to denials at the hearing level), as seen in the chart above. Within each level of adjudication, however, differences between decision times for allowances and denials are relative small. This variation can be seen in the chart below.