The Dallas Morning News recently featured an article deploring the terrible backlogs at the Social Security Administration. Excerpts from the story:
Steadily lengthening delays in the resolution of Social Security disability claims have left hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory, waiting as long as three years for a decision.
Two-thirds of those who appeal a first rejection eventually win their cases.
But in the meantime, more and more people have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or even died while awaiting an appeals hearing, say lawyers representing claimants and officials of the Social Security Administration, which administers disability benefits for those judged unable to work or who face terminal illness.
The agency’s plan to hire at least 150 new appeals judges to reduce the backlog, which has soared to 755,000 from 311,000 in 2000, will require $100 million more than the president requested this year. The plan has been delayed by the standoff between Congress and the White House over domestic appropriations.
There are 1,025 judges currently at work, and the wait for an appeals hearing averages more than 500 days, compared with 258 in 2000. Without new judges, federal officials predict even longer waits.
The disability process is complex, and the standard for approval has, from the beginning in the 1950s, been intentionally strict to prevent malingering. But it is also inevitably subjective in some cases, like those involving mental illness or pain that cannot be tested.
In a standard tougher than those of most private plans, recipients must prove that because of physical or mental disabilities they are unable to do “any kind of substantial work” for at least 12 months – if an engineer could not do his job but could work as a clerk, he would not qualify – or prove that an illness is expected “to result in death.”
In an interview, the commissioner of Social Security, Michael J. Astrue, said that outright fraud was rare, but that many cases on appeal were borderline. In addition, there was tighter scrutiny following widely publicized charges in the 1970s that money had been wasted on recipients whose conditions improved.
Of the approximately 2.5 million disability applicants each year, about two-thirds are turned down by state agencies, which make decisions with federal oversight based on paper records but no interview. Most of those who are refused give up at that point or after a failed request for local reconsideration.
But of the more than 575,000 who go on to file appeals, two-thirds eventually win benefits.
Mr. Astrue and other officials attribute the high number of reversals to several causes: Those who file appeals tend to be those with stronger cases and with lawyers who help them gather persuasive medical data. During the extended waiting period, a person’s condition may worsen, strengthening the case. The judges see applicants in person, and have more discretion to grant benefits.
Face to face interviews at the initial stage could reduce the number of appeals, Mr. Astrue said, “but given the huge volume of cases coming through, it would be incredibly costly and the Congress is not willing to fund that.”
The growing delays in appeals over the last decade resulted in part from litigation and financing shortages that prevented the hiring of new administrative law judges. In addition, the number of applicants is rising as baby boomers reach their 50s and 60s.
“Once the system got overloaded, it fell farther and farther behind,” said Rick Warsinsky, legislative director of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, which represents managers from the agency.
If approved, those who have paid into Social Security receive income comparable to retirement benefits, averaging more than $1,000 a month. The poor, and severely disabled children, receive Supplemental Security Income checks, $637 a month in 2008.
Mr. Astrue, the latest of several Social Security commissioners to promise speedier decisions, said the agency had already taken steps to ensure quicker initial approval for those most clearly eligible and was holding more video hearings.
But by all accounts, a major increase in money, judges and support staff will be needed to have a significant impact on the problem.
Mr. Astrue said that if the budget impasse continued, leaving the agency budget at its current level, “not only will we not do any hiring, we’re looking at furloughs.”
A first step of raising the number of judges to 1,200 will require at least $100 million extra for the agency beyond the $9.6 billion that President Bush has proposed for the 2008 fiscal year, Mr. Astrue said. The Democratic-controlled Congress voted a $275 million increase for the agency, but Mr. Bush vetoed the whole spending bill, calling it profligate.
If the stalemate continues, the government will probably operate on the basis of continuing resolutions, which will keep agency spending at last year’s level and doom the plan to add judges.