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Disabled worker cases at record

By Richard Wolf,

The Social Security Administration faces a record — and rapidly growing — backlog of appeals by people who claim they are too disabled to work. Through June, it had just over 745,000 cases pending, and the wait for a hearing averaged 17 months, also a record.

Claimants in some parts of the country must wait up to 31 months, according to the agency. “People have died waiting for a hearing,” Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue says.

The agency says the backlog doubled in six years and could reach 1 million by 2010.

Astrue is trying to reduce the waits, but Congress has provided nearly $1 billion less than President Bush sought over the past six years. Field offices have lost more than 2,300 workers in less than two years, leaving the agency with its lowest staffing level since the early 1970s. The agency froze staffing levels for nine months last year after threatening furloughs.

“We don’t have enough staff members to answer the phones,” says Richard Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, which represents 3,500 field office managers. District offices handle 110 million calls and visitors a year. As the baby boom ages, he foresees “almost a tsunami of additional people coming on to the rolls.”

This year, Bush proposed a 3% increase in funding for the program; House and Senate bills would make that 4% to 5%.

The aging of baby boomers has added to the ranks of the disabled. As workers age, they are more prone to injury and disease. The number of people collecting disability benefits, 15.3 million, has risen by about 24% in the past five years, agency figures show.

“It’s a combination of two demographic trends — the population getting larger and the population getting older,” Astrue says.

Under a system set up a half-century ago, state agencies first review disability claims, a process that takes three to four months on average. Of the 2.5 million people who file disability claims each year, about 65% are initially denied. Those who appeal go to federal hearings before administrative law judges. Eventually, 62% of the appeals are approved.

The average wait for a federal hearing varies from nine months in Harrisburg, Pa., to 31 months in Atlanta, mostly due to staffing differences. “It really is a continuing disaster, financially and emotionally, for millions of people,” says Tom Affleck, an Atlanta attorney who works on such cases.

The agency also has reduced the number of approved cases it periodically reviews. As a result, “people are getting paid benefits that they’re not entitled to, just because we don’t have the staff to review their cases,” says Witold Skwierczynski, president of the National Council of Social Security Administration Field Operations Locals.

Astrue is pursuing changes, from making “compassionate” early decisions to holding more hearings electronically, so geographic disparities are lessened. But “I can’t look the Congress in the eye right now and say we’re doing our job as well as we can do it.”