Long Wait Times Deter Disability Applicants

Applying for federal disability benefits is a precarious situation for workers who were either forced, or have chosen, to quit their jobs due to an injury or chronic medical condition. There are no guarantees an application will be approved, and it can be hard to find a job after waiting months for a decision on whether they qualify for the benefits.

In new research documenting how long individuals wait for a decision on their initial disability applications to a Social Security Administration (SSA) field office, the average ranges from about seven to nine months.

The entire process can take twice as long if SSA denies the request for benefits and the applicant appeals within the agency or to an administrative law judge or federal court, the researchers found.

Wait times between the initial filing and resolving all appeals fluctuated quite a bit, at least during the study’s time period – 1996 through 2014 – but ended at a higher level than where they started. The waits in exurban and rural areas increased more than in urban areas.

Why does this matter? In addition to the burden on applicants of having to wait, long waits may be dissuading people from applying for disability. Counties that took longer to process applications and resolve all the appeals saw fewer applications the following year, the researchers found.

The impact of wait times on future applications provides preliminary “evidence of the importance of how SSA processing interacts with applicant behavior,” the researchers said.

The amount of time it takes to process an application can vary for all sorts of reasons. Certain severe medical conditions that are clearly disabling can speed things up. But submitting an incomplete application or applying to a particularly busy field office can lengthen the process. …Learn More

Retirees Do a Stint in London – and Why Not?

Joanna McIsaac-Kierklo in Dublin

Joanna McIsaac-Kierklo in Dublin

Many retirees, freed from their work obligations and looking for adventure, dream of living overseas. Edward Kierklo and Joanna McIsaac-Kierklo don’t dream. They just do.

In May 2021, the couple, feeling trapped by the pandemic in their sleepy town in the Sierra Foothills east of San Francisco, decided to break out and trade rural life for 11 months in London. Joanna’s always been a risk-taker, starting at 22, when she moved to Idaho to be a Vista volunteer. London was her idea.

“Joanna says, ‘I’m tired of looking at these floors and cleaning an 1,800-square-foot home,’ ” Ed, 73, recalled. “She said, ‘Let’s sell the place and go to London.’ I said okay.”

The pandemic played a starring role in their big move. “We felt isolated and a little itchier than we might’ve been so we traded an almost-rural area for a distinctly urban setting,” he said. They relocated to London, vaccinated and boosted, in November 2021.

Edward Kierklo in Warsaw

Edward Kierklo in Warsaw

The couple, who married in their 50s, have the two things that are critical to an ex-pat adventure: fun money and their health. From their new home base, they were able to take weekend getaways all over Great Britain and on the Continent. But it took a lot of planning to move overseas.

Joanna, a former project manager in the healthcare field, is the planner in the family too. She found a London real estate specialist and figured out how to ship their Birmin cat, Suzette, across the pond – for $4,200. They flew to London and found a fifth-floor apartment in a concierge building in the borough of Ealing. The trains, shops, and restaurants were within walking distance so they didn’t need a car, and Joanna went online and bought the furniture, pots, pans, and all things necessary for the new place.

“I take the reins,” she said about their adventure. “I lift all the boxes,” Ed said.

They sold the house in California’s hot real estate market to a cash buyer 18 hours after putting it on the market and booked a nice profit. “Anyone who owns property in California is a millionaire,” said Joanna, 72.

Ed, a retired information technology professional, quickly learned that renting in London is complicated. Retirees must go through an “intrusive” and “bureaucratic” process requiring six months’ rent upfront and disclosure of numerous financial documents, he said. But he was born in England – his parents emigrated from Poland – so his British passport smoothed the path to getting a bank account. Having a passport also meant he didn’t need a visa to live in London.

Joanna, on the other hand, did. She obtained a six-month tourist visa, which required her to leave the country and return to California before her six months ran out. She then flew back to London to restart the visa clock.

During their stay, the couple enjoyed sinking into the local culture. …Learn More

Retiring to Care for Grandchild isn’t Unusual

Retirement can change everything. So can grandchildren.

A new study that looks at the transitions made by older workers finds that the odds of relocating after they retire to be closer to their adult children increase from the pre-retirement years – 16 percent of recent retirees do so.

Some people make these moves, to within 10 miles of family, right around the time of retirement, but the relocations are still happening at least four years afterward.

A new grandchild provides an even more compelling reason to move at a time quality childcare is expensive and in short supply. In the study, the researchers found that one in 10 grandparents who, prior to retiring, already considered themselves caregivers for at least one child move closer to the child’s parents. That doubles to two in 10 after they retire.

The probability of making a move is “higher for older adults reporting grandchild care compared to their peers who do not provide such care,” conclude Megan Doherty Bea and Somalis Chy at the University of Wisconsin.

They tracked some 3,000 older workers’ answers to a regular survey during a 12-year period around retirement. The survey collected a range of personal data, including information about their finances, where they live, and whether they spend at least 100 hours a year taking care of grandchildren.

One curious aspect of this study is that retiring and moving doesn’t necessarily mean the person will simultaneously sign up for Social Security benefits, which raises the question of how the new retirees support themselves. …Learn More

COVID’s Impact on Claiming Social Security

The economy expanded smartly in the years before the Great Recession, just as it did before the COVID downturn. But the two recessions were markedly different, with opposite effects on when older workers signed up for Social Security, a new study finds.

In 2008, the stock market slid nearly 40 percent. Older Americans with retirement accounts, wanting to recoup their losses, were more likely to keep working or looking for a new job during the protracted downturn. But skyrocketing unemployment pushed many older workers in the other direction.

Social Security became an obvious fallback in the Great Recession for jobless workers who were at least 62 years old as the unemployment rate stagnated at around 10 percent for 1½ years. Not surprisingly, then, more people overall started claiming the retirement benefit early.

The COVID recession had the opposite effect on Social Security claiming. There was a slight decline in the likelihood that older workers started their benefits early – defined as prior to Social Security’s full retirement age – according to the Center for Retirement Research.

COVID played out differently mainly because the generosity of the federal pandemic assistance was unprecedented. First, in March 2020, Congress approved $600 weekly payments to supplement the standard unemployment benefit and extended them for 13 weeks. In December 2020, Congress renewed the weekly supplement at $300 and extended the benefits for 11 weeks. In March 2021, they were extended again through the end of September.

During COVID, the slight drop in claiming Social Security early was driven by older workers whose earnings are in the bottom two-thirds of all workers’ earnings. The unemployment support from the federal government made it easier for them to stay afloat without having to sign up for the retirement benefit.

The stock market also behaved much differently in the pandemic than in the 2008 financial crisis. During COVID, the market snapped back within months of its steep drop. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 18 percent in 2020 and soared another 28 percent in 2021. House prices also surged.

People with assets responded to their newfound wealth, becoming more likely to sign up for their Social Security benefits early relative to those without assets, the researchers found.

Still, this impact was more than offset by the decline in early claiming overall because more older Americans were using their generous unemployment benefits to keep paying the bills. …Learn More

Tis the Season to Shop for Medicare Options

Americans are fighting back against soaring food prices by shopping at discount grocers, buying lower-cost store brands, or giving up their favorite gourmet items.

Yet Medicare beneficiaries usually don’t shop around for a less expensive insurance policy or a higher quality one. It’s also advisable for retirees to review their current plans to make sure they still include the right doctors or prescription drugs for treating any new medical conditions. Open enrollment for Medicare Advantage and Part D plans started Oct. 15 and ends Dec. 7.

Over their lifetimes, retirees will spend an average $67,000 out-of-pocket for medical care – and that does not include the monthly premiums. The least healthy retirees will pay twice that much.

Yet only three in 10 people surveyed in 2019 by the Kaiser Family Foundation said they compared their existing Medicare insurance policies with the new policies that came on the market during open enrollment for 2020. Three groups who would probably benefit most had the lowest rates of shopping around: low-income and minority retirees and people over 85.

Given retirees’ reluctance to comparison shop, it should not be a surprise that the vast majority stay put and don’t change their policies. The share of people who do change a plan bounces around from year to year but not by much, Kaiser found. …Learn More

A New Link Between Opioids and Disability

Picture a worker who has an injury so traumatic that he or she is rushed to the emergency room. A doctor prescribes an opioid to ease the pain.

A new working paper adds to the growing evidence that taking opioids, even when necessary, can have serious long-term consequences for workers’ career paths.

Michael Dworsky at RAND found that workers who received prescription opioids after visiting Colorado emergency rooms were far more likely to enroll in Medicare before turning 65 than people who didn’t get a prescription to treat an injury. Starting Medicare before 65 almost always indicates that someone has left the labor force and is receiving benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance, the primary social program for workers with disabilities.

Dworsky reached similar findings in three different analyses, which used Medicare enrollment within four years of an emergency room visit as a rough proxy for whether workers are receiving the federal disability benefits.

People who had taken opioids prior to being injured were the most likely to leave the labor force. After an emergency room visit resulted in a new opioid prescription, more than 2 percent of the previous users wound up on Medicare and disability – a rate that is four times higher than for traumatic-injury patients who had never previously taken opioids.

Dworsky also examined the morphine-equivalent doses that were dispensed to patients over time. The probability of receiving prescription opioids spiked immediately after workers’ injuries and then stabilized at a higher level than before the injuries. …Learn More

How Older Workers Adapt to New Disability

One in four workers who are still healthy in their mid-50s will experience a disability in the next few years that will make working more difficult.

Sometimes the disability stems from a sudden medical problem such as a heart attack, but many disabilities are just the accumulated wear and tear on aging bodies or chronic medical conditions that get worse.

Whatever the cause, a new study in the journal Research on Aging finds that late-life disabilities often force older workers into early retirement. Nearly three-fourths of the workers who experienced a new disability in their late 50s or early 60s had left the labor force before their full retirement age. Among the people who didn’t have a disability, only a third had stopped working.

The researchers also looked more closely at those with disabilities who did continue to work. Were they able to transition into a new job or occupation that might accommodate their condition? Do they earn less?

The answer to both questions seems to be yes.

Linking a long-running survey of older Americans with occupational data, the researchers checked in on the workers who did not have a disability at age 55 to see how they were faring at 59, 63 and 67. Occupational changes were fairly common when they remained in the labor force after developing a disability.

This might mean moving from a physically demanding construction job to Uber driver or from school teacher to editor of educational materials. Finding a job in a different occupation potentially creates a bridge that accommodates the older workers’ desire to keep working and delay retirement.

At age 59, for example, two-thirds of the people with disabilities who stayed in the labor force had switched occupations, compared with less than a third of the other workers. Once a disability sets in, “staying in the same occupation is difficult,” the researchers concluded.

The people who develop a disability sometime after their mid-50s also earn perhaps 15 percent less than those who are disability-free at 67. …Learn More