Disability Applicants Losing Waiting Game

Kristi Khughes May 14, 2018

Nearly a million people nationwide are waiting for hearings before Social Security Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) to appeal the denial of their applications for federal disability benefits, SSI or SSD. And wait they will. At the end of February 2018, the national average processing time was 607 days. This is the wait time between requesting a hearing and getting a decision from the ALJ. As bad as that number is, all Social Security Offices of Hearing Operations (OHOs) in New York State have higher wait times: Albany and Syracuse are the “lowest” at 612 and 627, respectively. All the rest, Manhattan, Bronx, Queens, Long Island, White Plains, Rochester, and Buffalo, have processing times of more than 700 days.


Mister Postman, look and see
Is there a letter in your bag for me?
I been waiting a long, long time (the Marvelettes)


A number of news sources across the country have underscored the desperate plight of sick and disabled people caught up in the cruel waiting games that tie up their claims for disability benefits. They wait for an initial decision. They wait for a hearing date. They wait for a decision after their hearing. They wait for a decision after one or more appeals. Many will die waiting for their benefits.


The Washington Post recently reported that 10,000 people died in fiscal year 2017 while waiting for a decision on their claims for disability benefits. http://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2017/11/20/10000-people-died-waiting-for-a-disability-decision-in-the-past-year-will-he-be-next/?utm_term=.666c70de9129. The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a similar story. http://www.philly.com/philly/news/politics/ssi-delays-disability-hearing-20180107.html


Locally, the Albany Times Union highlighted a similar scenario. http://digital.olivesoftware.com/Olive/ODN/AlbanyTimesUnion/shared/ShowArticle.aspx?doc=HATU%2F2018%2F02%2F25&entity=Ar00104&sk=0A99D3CC&mode=text. And the Norwood News featured clients affected by lengthy delays in the Bronx. http://www.norwoodnews.org/id=25285&story=bronx-disability-backlog-part-national-disgrace/


As DAP advocates are aware, backlogs in the disability determination process are nothing new. That fact is small consolation to the million people who wait. Congress recently earmarked $100 million of increased the Social Security Administration (SSA) funding for reducing the disability hearing backlog. SSA owes it to its customers to implement some meaningful changes that will effectuate change.


Although we advocates cannot solve the backlog problem, we can make sure we facilitate the issuance of decisions by ensuring all evidence is submitted timely and claimants are well prepared for their hearings. In addition, we should make sure the ALJ understands our theories of the case, and perhaps prepare a prehearing memo that articulates both the legal and factual issues that justify a favorable decision on disability.


They also serve who only stand and wait (John Milton)


In addition to the disability appeals backlog, visitors to SSA’s field offices can also expect to wait longer times.  The Office of the Inspector General for the Social Security Administration released a report recently documenting increased wait times at SSA field offices. According to the report, from the year 2010 to 2016, the number of field office visitors who waited longer than one hour increased 109%, despite fewer total visitors to field offices in 2016 compared to 2010.


The report highlighted the challenges SSA faced in delivering quality services at its field offices. The primary factors the report identified were complex workloads that require significant time to process, decreased staffing levels caused by budget-related hiring freezes, and shortened public operating hours also caused by low levels of funding. The report also highlighted strategies SSA is attempting to implement to reduce wait times, including promoting technology solutions, approving overtime, and sharing best practices among field offices. Despite these strategies, however, SSA continues to experience increases in visitor wait times.


With increased funding in this year’s administrative budget, SSA must continue to focus on reducing field office wait times and lawmakers must continue to provide sufficient funding for 2019 in order for the agency to make real progress. As the OIG report highlights, there is a lot of work to be done.