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Disability wait time here gets low marks

By Dan Herbeck
The Buffalo News
Published: April 09, 2010

The Buffalo office that processes Social Security Disability claims has improved its performance over the past two years, but a new study shows it is still one of the slowest in the nation.

People who apply for disability insurance in Buffalo now wait an average of 578 days — that’s about a year and seven months — before a judge hears the case, according to a nationwide study.

That waiting period is an improvement over the 688-day average waiting period recorded two years earlier, but the Buffalo office still ranks as the seventh-slowest out of 143 offices nationwide.

Nationally, the average waiting time for an appeal hearing before a judge is 442 days, according to the study conducted by Allsup Inc., a company that specializes in representing disability applicants.

The Social Security Administration has made improvements over the past two years, but some applicants “unfairly face longer waits and increased hardship,” said Jim Allsup, chief executive officer of the company based in Belleville, Ill.

Jeffrey M. Freedman, a Buffalo attorney who handles many such cases, agrees.

“Some of our clients lose everything because they have no source of income while they are waiting to receive benefits,” Freedman said. “[They have] paid into this system all of their work lives with the guarantee it would be there for them if they became ill or injured and could no longer work.”

Established in 1954, Social Security Disability is a payroll-funded federal insurance program for people who are unable to work because of injuries or disabilities. More than 7.5 million Americans and their dependents receive more than $106 billion a year in disability insurance benefits, according to the Social Security Administration.

More than 2.8 million people filed new applications for the insurance last year, according to the Allsup study.

Why is the case movement so slow in Buffalo?

Social Security Administration officials had no immediate comment Thursday, but they told The Buffalo News in October that they have taken numerous steps to streamline the process in Buffalo and other cities.

Kenmore attorney Richard G. Abbott, who represents a lot of disability insurance applicants, sees several reasons.

“In part, I think it is because we have a lot of unhealthy people in our region. You have a lot of people who have done heavy work in factories, and a lot who live unhealthy lifestyles,” Abbott said. “I also think the Buffalo office [of Disability Adjudication and Review] has been understaffed for years.”

Freedman said the Social Security Administration has received a 10 percent federal funding increase this year, and he said a portion of the new money will be used to reduce the processing time for disability insurance claims.

The government plans to hire more administrative law judges and support staffers to work on the backlog, said Freedman, who has closely monitored the situation for years.

The only cities with longer waiting times than Buffalo in 2009 were: Columbus, Ohio; Dayton, Ohio; Oak Park, Mich.; Madison, Wis.; Detroit; and Kansas City, Mo., the Allsup study said.