Thursday, May 21, 2009

Disability Backlog Hurts Locals

Last month I linked to an AP report on the huge backlog of disability cases the Social Security Administration is facing. A report in today's Fort Worth Star Telegram documents the experiences of local Tarrant County residents:

Linda King says diabetes and heart problems forced her to quit her office job and apply for disability benefits in January 2007.

While she waited, she made ends meet off the $300 to $350 her cousin gave her every month. That had to cover bills, medicine, and lunchmeat and soup.

"It’s really hard, but you tell yourself you can do it while you wait," said the 61-year-old Haltom City woman.

Two years and five months later, she still waits.

King, who was initially turned down for benefits, is among more than 750,000 Americans trapped in a backlog of disputed Social Security disability claims. Applicants who seek an appeal hearing sometimes wait years for one.

In Fort Worth, applicants as of April waited an average of 355 days from the time they request a hearing until they get one, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. The wait in Dallas ranges from 342 to 418 days.

Social Security Administration officials have blamed the backlog on a rising number of claims and staffing shortages. Earlier this year, Commissioner Michael Astrue warned that the faltering economy had triggered a 10 percent increase in new claims, hampering the agency’s efforts to reduce the existing backlog.

"It’s so frustrating," King said. "I check my mailbox every day and hope I get an answer."

To request an appeal hearing, applicants’ claims must first be denied twice. The first decision takes an average of 106 days, according to administration officials.

The second ruling usually takes 45 to 60 days, said Marva Foster, team leader for Mash Inc., a Fort Worth agency that guides people through the application process.

About 64 percent of applicants are initially denied.

Hearings are held before administrative judges, and that’s where things can grind to a halt. The agency is handling twice the number of claims it did in the 1990s, according to administration figures.

"If you’ve been waiting a long time, of course you’re frustrated," said Tom Clark, spokesman for the North Texas Social Security Office. "We’re working very hard to reduce that backlog."


In the meantime, those ailing and caught in the backlog face struggles.

"They get no medical benefits, no income, unless there is a spouse working," Foster said. "If you got out and try to find some kind of job while you wait, you risk being denied because, well, now you’re working."

And that's the catch-22 that applicants for disability face. If they work, that's used as evidence that they're actually not disabled. If they don't work, then maybe they don't eat. Then there's the fact that the SSA regards one of their jobs as protecting the government from actually having to make payouts to disabled citizens. According to the article the SSA is set to add 3200 workers to the agency, but though that will help reduce the backlog, it doesn't change the fact that many who are truly disabled will struggle for months, if not years, before they acquire the disability benefits they are legally entitled to.

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