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Getting SSD benefits is still a waiting game

By: Jeffrey Freedman

I wish I could say the waiting times to receive Social Security Disability benefits have improved greatly since I last wrote about this issue in January of 2007. They have not. The beat goes on.

Last June Sen. Charles E. Schumer asked Congress for a major increase in funding so the Social Security Administration could fix the disability claims system, which forces many applicants into bankruptcy and homelessness while they wait to be approved to receive benefits.

Social Security Disability is an insurance fund we all pay into through our FICA taxes. As with all other insurance policies, SSD is supposed to ensure that if we become disabled to the extent we are unable to work, we can make a claim and receive benefits to pay for our living and medical expenses.

After their initial application, however, two out of every three people who apply for SSD benefits are rejected. They can then ask for a hearing. Nationwide the average wait time to get a hearing is 520 days. In Buffalo this time period is even slower — 688 days. Some people wait up to three years to get their hearing, and then nearly half — of those previously rejected claims — are approved.

Nancy Shor, executive director of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives blames Congress. Shor says Congress has underfunded the SSA’s administrative operations for years, creating what she calls a “claims system that seems to work backwards.”

From 2001 to 2007 President Bush asked Congress for approximately $180 million a year more for the Social Security Administration than it awarded. Last November, however, it was Bush who denied extra funding for the program. According to an editorial in the New York Times, Congress passed a health, education and labor spending bill that would have given the Social Security Administration $275 million more than the President asked for and would have allowed the SSA to hire many more judges and provide better services. President Bush vetoed the bill.

One of my clients, a woman with severe back problems, was unable to work after 2004, filed her initial application for SSD in 2005, was denied, and requested a hearing that same year. Finally in 2007 she had her hearing and within five minutes the judge ruled she was unable to work and should have received benefits from the time she was injured back in 2004. My client received retroactive payments for the thousands of dollars she was owed, but by that time she had used up all of her life savings, all of the equity in her home, and had been living on credit to the extent she was so in debt she would never catch up.

Recently CBS news aired two segments on SSD, including an interview with Michael Astrue, commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Astrue said that as our population has aged the numbers of claims for Social Security Disability have increased significantly (the backlog has risen by 150 percent since 2000), while the budget has been cut leaving SSD offices understaffed and the present number (1,025) of Administrative Law Judges far too few to handle the workload.

Additionally, Astrue agrees that the standards for approval are extremely tough. In one case cited the judge acknowledged the applicant was severely disabled, but not disabled enough to be “unable to perform work of any kind.”

In addition to the tough standards, CBS news found there was a “culture to deny” among the examiners who review applications. Claimants suffering from strokes, heart attacks, and even brain cancer have been denied benefits. Over the past two years up to 16,000 claimants have died waiting to get benefits, and currently the backlog of cases nationwide is about 750,000. One former examiner says that SSD employees are singled out and spoken to if they approve too many claims.

Statistics, however, only tell one side of the story. They do not tell of the human toll: marriages split up by the stress of financial woes; families put out of their homes because they can’t make the mortgage payments; and claimants in need of medical attention who can’t get to the doctor because their car has been repossessed. Many of the clients we see in our offices are living with family members because they’ve lost their homes. One has been slowly selling off his gun collection to keep his head above water.

These people are not asking for welfare. They were given a promise. Pay into Social Security and if you are disabled and unable to work you will receive benefits. Until funding is increased things will only get worse. Desperate American citizens in crisis who have dutifully paid into the Social Security system for much of their lives will find themselves virtually abandoned by a backlogged and ineffective claims process.