The Dallas Morning News today published an article decrying the absurd delay between the time a disabled person files for Social Security disability benefits and the time an Administrative Law Judge finally makes a decision on the claim. Here are excerpts from the article, headlined “Disabled often wait years for Social Security payment”:
Now that most of the nation’s 78 million boomers have entered their prime years for illnesses and disabilities, they’re flooding Social Security with claims and creating an unprecedented backlog. Pending requests for a hearing before an administrative law judge have more than doubled to 750,000 in the last decade.
Nationally, the average wait for a judge’s decision has stretched to 502 days this year, compared with 258 in 2000. At some hearing offices, the average wait approaches 800 days. In North Texas, claimants wait an average of 461 days at the North Dallas office, 453 days at the downtown office and 411 days in Fort Worth.
Even under the best circumstances, the boomers’ claims would strain Social Security’s workforce. But years of congressionally mandated belt-tightening have left the agency’s staff at its lowest level since the 1970s. It now has fewer judges than a decade ago.
There are also allegations that private disability insurance companies are unnecessarily clogging the public system by requiring many of their applicants to file separate, and often questionable, claims with Social Security.
Social Security’s new administrator, Michael Astrue, has made reducing the backlog of disability cases a priority, acknowledging that people have died before receiving a decision. His efforts have brought the first significant increase in funding in 15 years for his agency’s operations.
Today, 7.2 million Americans collect Social Security disability benefits because of a medical condition that prevents them from working for at least one year. The average monthly check is $1,004.
Two of three disability claims are initially denied. Most of those who are rejected give up, but the others appeal, first to another claims examiner and then to an administrative law judge.
People who request administrative hearings often hire attorneys or other professionals, who customarily charge 25 percent of the retroactive benefits, up to $5,300, and collect only if the clients win.
Patience and tenacity can pay off. About 60 percent of those who request hearings go on to win their cases.
As frustrating as the delays have been, experts say, it’s hard to blame all of them on the overworked, underfunded Social Security Administration.
At times in recent years, the agency has had only enough money to hire one employee for every three who leave. Since 2001, Congress has appropriated an average of $150 million less each year than the president requested.
“We’re an agency under stress,” said Greg Heineman, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, whose members are the agency’s managers. “We have 5,000 fewer employees than in 2005, yet more work to do.”
Mr. Astrue wants to hire 50 to 75 more administrative law judges next year, but he has also pushed a number of initiatives to improve efficiency.
The reforms have included converting the remaining paper files to computer files, paying particular attention to the oldest pending cases, expediting decisions on clear-cut cases like late-stage cancer and increasing judges’ productivity by relying more on video hearings, such as in remote areas.