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DISABILITY PROCESSING DELAYS: WHY DOES IT TAKE SO LONG?

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Many potential clients I speak with daily are shocked to learn that the average wait time for a disability decision with the Social Security Administration is two years.  Yes, you heard me correctly – two years.  Why is that?  First, most applications are denied.  Second, the time period for a decision on the initial application is five months.  An appeal to the next level of review (reconsideration) is three to five months.  The next level of review – and where your best chance of a favorable decision exists — is the hearing level.  The current approval rate in Georgia at the hearing level is 48%.

But wait times for a hearing are currently over a year.  Here are the official wait times for a hearing in Georgia:  Atlanta Downtown Hearing Office – 20 months; Atlanta North Hearing Office –         18 months; Covington  –  18 months; Macon  –  16 months; Savannah – 17 months.

From a  2017 CBS News report, there were 1.1 million applicants waiting on a hearing before an administrative law judge.  That is a 31 percent increase from 2012.  However, the agency’s annual budget is the same as it was in 2011.  Five years ago the hearing wait times were less than a year.   “No search for efficiencies, reprioritization of tasks or technological improvements can substitute for adequate resources,” said Lisa Ekman of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

It is important to remember that these individuals paid into the Social Security Disability and Medicare program through payroll taxes taken out of each paycheck.  When Congress fails to sufficiently fund this program, these are the people that are hurt.  And when I say ‘hurt” it is important to understand how many individuals die while waiting on a decision.

According to a Washington Post report of November 2017, in the past two years, 18,701 people died while waiting on a hearing.  That is a 15 percent increase over the two year period.  As the Post reports, “The rising death toll coincides with a surge in the length of time people must wait for a disposition, which swelled from a national average of 353 days in 2012 to a record high of 596 this past summer.”   I know that people will die waiting,” said Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. “This is the reflection of our priorities as an American people. We have decided it’s better for people to die than to adequately fund this program. . . . Will this get worse? Will the number of people who die double?”

Not only is this reporting factually accurate, but it also reflects my own experience.  One or two of my clients dies every year waiting for a hearing.  Last September, one of my clients died less than a month after receiving a favorable decision.  He had been evicted, faced homelessness and extreme poverty.  His SSI award was erased on his death.  This level of injustice outrages me.   In the words of Mahatma Gandhi,  “The true measure of a society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.”  Let’s keep fighting for justice.