Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hearings in 75 days and Decisions in 15 ?

The interesting part of this July 16, 2008 article, complete version found at the St Petersburg Times website, involves Rep. Kathy Castor's proposed legislation this week to break the backlog.

Vacant judgeship adds to wait for aid
By Waveney Ann Moore, Times Staff Writer

The tens of thousands of people stuck in the national backlog for Social Security disability benefits might disagree, but the agency's top official argues progress is being made in ending the crisis.

The progress is hard to see in the Tampa Bay area, however, where the caseload is among the highest in the nation and an office sits empty awaiting the hiring of a much-needed judge.

The most recent figures indicate that 761,042 people are waiting across the country for hearings to address their claims. In the Tampa hearing office, the number is 14,524, the highest in the state.

The situation prompted Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa democrat, to propose legislation this week to break the backlog. Castor's bill would require that a hearing be held between 60 and 75 days from the date it is requested, and that a final verdict be given no more than 15 days after the hearing.

Social Security officials in Baltimore could not answer questions Tuesday, but in April, Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told Congress the agency has made "slow and frustrating progress in fixing our service delivery problems."

One step taken was the hiring of additional administrative law judges and support staff members to handle the hearings. In the Tampa office, though, that has yet to pay dividends.

Funds were appropriated in December to allow the office to increase its number of judges from 16 to 17, but the new judge's office remains empty.

"They started the hiring process in late April or early May. I don't know why it (has taken) so long," Castor said. "A judge was hired … the office is ready. For some reason, the person that was hired refused the posting. So now they're not going to start the next round of hiring until the beginning of October.

During his testimony, Astrue told Congress that the agency has begun using a fast-track system to decide allowances in an average of six to eight days. But thus far, only a small number of new claims were being processed this way, he said.

Video conferencing is being introduced to help break apart the worst logjams, he said, and the agency is going to begin a pilot program called "compassionate allowances."

Linda Fullerton, co-founder of a national grass roots organization called the Social Security Disability Coalition, is not impressed.

Fullerton, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., said she waited for a year and a half to get her benefits. When the wait devastated her finances, she got angry enough to start a cyberspace group that now numbers 3,000 members, she said.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Backlogs Front Page News In Indianapolis

From front page of the Indianapolis Star – Sunday July 6, 2008. The following article by S. Rudavksy considers the disability backlog big news. The Star ran this article, excepted below, about the state and nation's continued delays in obtaining a disability hearing.

Headline -Getting on disability is a real pain takes average Hoosier more than 2 years to receive a hearing

Dana Smith waited three years for a judge to agree she qualifies for Social Security disability payments. That’s because Indiana has one of the worst records in the country for processing the disability claims of people unable to work because of medical or psychiatric reasons. Once they're approved, recipients get an average of $1,000 a month in financial assistance. For a determination at the Indianapolis offices for Social Security disability or Supplemental Security Income, the average applicant waits 749 days from the time of filing until a hearing before an administrative judge, the step necessary if claims are denied -- and most are.

Most Americans wait 505 days, the Social Security Administration estimates.
Without a job or any source of income while they wait, some applicants lose their homes and cars. Some must live with relatives or friends or in shelters. Some go on welfare. Some die before a final decision. "I was very appalled at how long it took," said Smith, a Southside resident who watched with envy as a friend in Tennessee completed the process in a year. "I kept thinking: any time now, any time now." Government officials blame the national backlog of disability claims on years of agency underfunding and understaffing combined with a growing number of applications from baby boomers. A recent Government Accountability Office report also identified mismanagement as an issue. Nationwide, the Social Security Administration has 10 percent fewer judges to hear case appeals than it did a decade ago, while the number of cases has increased by more than 176 percent, said Carmen Moreno, regional communications director for the Social Security Administration's Chicago region, which includes Indiana. "We're sympathetic over the fact that the waiting times are long, but keeping in mind that we are receiving so much less money than we need, these are the consequences," Moreno said. In Indianapolis, no one filled the chief administrative law judge position for seven or eight months, said Phillip Price, an Indianapolis attorney who has specialized in disability cases for about three decades. Judges have been slow to move on cases, said Price and Steven Jacobs, another attorney who has worked on such cases since 1974. Most cases used to be heard within six months, Price said. "We need more judges, more staff. We need a more efficient staff," Jacobs said. For the first time in a decade, the Social Security Administration this year received more rather than less funding. Congress allocated an additional $148 million to address the backlog, allowing the agency to hire 175 more judges and other staff nationwide.

Buoyed by the infusion of money and staff, the agency processed all cases nationwide older than 1,000 days. Now it's targeting the 135,000 cases across the country that are more than 900 days old, Moreno said. But even with more judges, the wait remains too long, Jacobs said: "It's like saying: 'I'm a lot taller now. I've grown from 3-foot-6 to 3-foot-7.' You're still a shrimp." To help troubled offices like the ones in Indianapolis, a new hearing center in Virginia will allow judges there to assist staff here by conducting hearings by video. The agency also may send traveling judges to the busiest offices, Moreno said.

People should wait no longer than 95 days from application to hearing, said Ethel Zelenske, director of government affairs for the National Organization of Social Security Claimants' Representatives, which also advocates for increased staffing. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has said he would like to see the wait reduced to 250 to 275 days, about half the time applicants face today.

Dana Smith's inability to work stems from a severe car accident at age 14. She now suffers from osteoarthritis in her right hip, bursitis in her right shoulder, migraine headaches and fibromyalgia, which she says causes horrific pain. Smith, 43, said she's tried to work. She's held jobs in offices, in fast-food restaurants, in department and convenience stores, and on a chicken farm. But each time, the pain came back, and Smith had to quit. In December 2003, the man she was seeing (now her husband, James Smith) offered to let her live with him while she applied for disability. She concentrated on her quest for benefits. "Every time I would try to deal with them (Social Security officials), I was told: 'You need to call this number. No, you need to call this number.' You never get a straight answer from anybody," she said. In March 2007, she had a hearing and soon was granted benefits. But she realizes her husband's generosity gave her security many others do not enjoy. "I just hope that something can be done so others don't have to wait this long," she said. "There are other people that are worse off than I am."