Thanks to North Carolina attorney Brent Adams for pointing out this article in the Charlotte Observer about the increasing backlog of Social Security disability claims filed with the Social Security Administration. Here are excerpts from the opinion piece:
From Ronald Bernoski, an administrative law judge and president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, and D. Randall Frye, based in Charlotte, an administrative law judge and executive vice president of the association:
The number of workers qualifying for disability has doubled in recent years, despite the fact that Americans today are healthier and living longer than previous generations. In 1985, 3.9 million Americans received a Social Security disability benefit; 20 years later the number exceeded 8 million. The system is now so backlogged that in some parts of the country, like Charlotte, workers can wait two to three years for a disability benefit hearing.
The Charlotte backlog may stem in part from plant and mill closings and severe staffing shortages at the Charlotte disability court, but the primary reason for the caseload increase is the huge number of baby boomers reaching their 50s and 60s. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, least of all the Social Security Administration or Congress.
As late as the 1990s, SSA had no significant disability case backlog. Today, the number of cases waiting to be heard exceeds 750,000. Yet the number of judges who handle these cases has remained static — and the number of support staff has actually decreased.
According to figures released by SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue in FY 2006, administrative law judges handled 550,000 disability cases — a level that exceeded the agency’s own goals. Over the past five years, Congress gave SSA $900 million less than the president’s budget request. Consequently, as staff members quit or retired they have not been replaced.
In Charlotte in 2006 (the last year for which statistics are available), the disability court exceeded the agency’s 100 percent standard by a full 17 percentage points. Nevertheless, the backlog both here and nationwide is overwhelming. Judges are deeply frustrated. Every day they see Americans in their courtrooms who need help but have been forced to endure outrageously long waits for hearings. Some claimants have lost everything while waiting. Many have become homeless. A few have been driven to suicide. As a society we can and should do better.
SSA has tried to speed the process by using new technology such as electronic files and video teleconference hearings. Congress has demanded that more judges be hired. These are positive steps. But more needs to be done. The staffing crisis needs to be addressed and the bureaucracy needs to be responsive.
Under the Administrative Procedures Act, disability claimants are entitled to a full and fair due process hearing. Federal administrative law judges provide that hearing. These cases can be very complex. This is not traffic court. The average award over a lifetime exceeds $250,000.
When Social Security was created in the 1930s, it was solely an old-age program. Fifty-one years ago, on Aug. 1, 1956, as he signed new legislation that for the first time added disability protection, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “we will … endeavor to administer the disability [program] efficiently and effectively….”
Administrative law judges have been working closely with SSA to reduce the backlog of claims for benefits. Judges are handling more cases than ever. But judges can’t do it alone. We need our courts to be managed and staffed properly. We owe those Americans who have paid into the system their day in court and a decision in a timely manner. Those in need shouldn’t have to wait.