Yesterday I mentioned an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News decrying the terrible Social Security disability claims backlog. Another similar editorial ran this month in the It. Louis Post-Dispatch. This one highlights a claimant who died shortly after being told he was not sick enough to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. Here are excerpts:
Mark Denny’s disability hearing took place Monday at the Social Security Administration office in Creve Coeur. An administrative judge was there, as were lawyers and Mr. Denny’s mother and sister.
Mark Denny himself wasn’t there. He died on Jan. 24, 2006 — two weeks after being told he wasn’t sick enough to collect federal disability insurance, and shortly after he decided to appeal.
His case isn’t unusual, though most clients don’t die during the average 486 days it takes from the time a disability appeal is filed with the Social Security Administration in St. Louis until a hearing can be held. It takes even longer in Kansas City: 684 days.
The problem isn’t caused by lazy civil servants. The judges who preside over disability appeals face a crushing caseload, as do the Social Security employees who process the paperwork. Federal funding for their agency hasn’t kept pace with demographics. Aging baby boomers have now reached their 50s and 60s. That’s the age range of most people who file federal disability claims.
Consider these statistics:
- The Social Security Administration says a judge can handle as many as 360 cases at one time. The average caseload for judges across the country is 736.
- Nationally, the average waiting time for hearings is more than 500 days.
- The number of cases awaiting hearings has jumped to about 755,000 from 311,000 in 2000.
Social Security officials asked for an extra $100 million to hire 150 more judges. But President George W. Bush didn’t include it in his budget. And when Congress voted to provide an extra $275 million in hopes of drastically reducing the backlog, it was included in an appropriations bill that Mr. Bush vetoed as being too expensive.
Many [claimants] have serious mental illnesses that go untreated while they wait. Lawyers who handle appeals say it has become common for clients to lose their homes or apartments. Mr. Denny, a graphic artist, was fortunate to have a mother who paid rent on a small St. Louis apartment and a sister who shopped for and looked in on him.
After an auto accident in 1995, Mr. Denny suffered steadily increasing pain in his back and legs. Doctors found dangerous blood clots. They worried that the clots could dislodge and travel to his heart or brain, causing heart attack or stroke.
They were right. Mr. Denny died of a stroke. He was 48 years old. His mother and sister have kept the case going for nearly two years. With luck, his case will be decided by spring. What’s at stake are disability payments and medical expenses for the months before he died.
“I view it as justice for him,” said Mr. Denny’s sister, Katheryn Ludwig. “It’s horrendous what the system puts people like my brother through.”