Archive for Sunday, February 24, 2008

Disability backlog creating hardship

System improvements are in the works, but applicants still face long wait, no money

February 24, 2008


Thursday's sleet and snow didn't stop Glenda Endriss from having her day in court.

She had waited too long - more than two years - to stay at home.

Endriss is among the thousands of Kansans whose Social Security disability case has taken years - not months - to decide. Unable to work and without an income, the wait for the Social Security Administration to rule on a disability case can leave applicants struggling.

A major milestone was reached in Endriss' case last week when she had a hearing in front of an administrative law judge in Topeka.

"There's not much you can do about the wait," Endriss said. "You know your time will come up, sooner or later; you just don't know when."

In August, Kansas was named the worst state in the country for its backlog of disability cases. Since then, the time it takes to get a hearing by a Social Security administrative law judge has increased.

As of January, the average wait for a hearing in Kansas City was 686 days - about two months shy of two years. It is a month and half longer than what the wait was in August.

For Wichita, it takes 529 days - almost a year and half - and more than a month longer than what the wait was in August.

John Garlinger, regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said the agency recognizes that the process takes far too long.

"Everybody who applies deserves a speedy decision, and we are not doing that," Garlinger said. "We are working on it, and in some ways we are getting better. But we still have a lot of work to do."

Judgment day

For Endriss, the past three years have been full of health problems. She underwent brain surgery to help ease severe migraines and then had three more surgeries on her shoulders and back.

Shortly after her doctor advised her to stop working, she applied for disability.

To get by, Endriss, a former apartment manager in Lawrence, moved in with a friend in Wellsville and depends on her family.

Last summer, Endriss was told she would have a hearing sometime in October.

Another four months had been added on to what was supposed to be a two-year wait. Earlier this month, she received a letter that set in writing her hearing date. She was overjoyed.

"The time has finally come," she said.

Improving the system

In the past six months, the Social Security Administration has made some changes.

The agency has shipped off 2,400 Kansas cases to Arizona and California. And the service area surrounding Pittsburg, Kan., has been realigned from the Wichita office to the San Francisco region.

On the national level, the agency has streamlined its process, sifting through files electronically to screen out cases that can be approved automatically, such as rare diseases and cancer. In those instances, approvals can be granted in 11 days.

And more judges and support staff will be hired, thanks to a $443 million bump in the 2008 federal budget.

The agency expects to hire 175 judges for 2008 and another 75 the following year, increasing the number of judges by more than 20 percent.

The bottleneck

Even with improvements, waits grow longer as the pile of claims coming into the agency continue to climb. Both the Kansas City and Wichita offices ended the fiscal year with 1,000 more cases than what they started the year with.

While Social Security staffing levels are at their lowest in more than 30 years, baby boomers are filing claims in record numbers.

"The baby boomers, and I am one of them, are in the middle of our most disability-prone years now," Garlinger said. "And it is only going to get worse."

U.S. Rep. Nancy Boyda, D-Kan., said the boost in this year's federal budget will be just enough to "stop the bleeding" after consecutive years of declining personnel.

"Cutting this many people out of administration right as the baby boomers were coming on was a sure way to crash the system," Boyda said.

The bottleneck for disability claims comes after the majority of the applicants are denied in the first round and have to wait for a hearing.

The initial decision lies with the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. It takes an average of 71 days for SRS to make a determination.

In the past few months, the percentage of claims SRS has approved has gone up from 28 percent to 35 percent.

Marilyn Harp, executive director of Kansas Legal Services, said she has heard of the process speeding up at both the state and national level.

"I am sure from the individual client perspective, many of them haven't seen a lot of improvement because they are still waiting, but systemwide we really have seen some," Harp said.

The wait

Lawrence resident Debra Shirar is among those still waiting. She applied for disability in fall 2006. Her hearing could come as late as May 2009.

Meanwhile, she's living with a friend and off the state's general assistance program. But the money isn't enough to cover her medications.

After years of working and contributing to Social Security, the delay is frustrating, she said.

"It's not like I am going up to Social Security after I have been sitting on my butt for the last 41 years and saying, 'Now pay me some money,'" Shirar said. "This is my money, and I am saying I deserve it."

Kathleen Overton, an attorney with Parmele Law Firm, said the best chance for approval is seeking legal aid even before the first round and hopefully avoiding the long wait for a hearing.

Overton's clients are being told it will be another 18 to 36 months for a hearing. Many of them want to know how they are going to survive.

"Unfortunately, we don't really have a lot of good answers for our clients," Overton said.

If a denial were made in the first round, there is not much else an applicant could do besides applying for public assistance. It also helps to go regularly to the doctor to gather the medical evidence needed to build a case, Overton said.

Topeka resident Mark Reser has made it through the wait. During the 29-month process, Reser's family went from two incomes to one, skipped Christmases and borrowed money from family. In August, Reser's disability claim was approved. In September, his first disability check arrived.

Since then the family has had Christmas, gone to Branson, Mo., on vacation and paid back the money they owed parents and siblings.

However, the rocky financial road isn't over. Reser's wife will lose her job at the end of this month because of layoffs.

Still, the disability payments come as a relief.

"I'm happy we got it," he said.


Ragingbear 10 years, 2 months ago

They haven't done anything to speed up the process. They have been claiming that "things will get better due to a new process" since the 80's. Meanwhile, people live on the streets for a year and a half waiting for their day in court.

Liberty 10 years, 2 months ago

This process shouldn't even go to court. If a doctor says that your condition meets the conditions for disability, that should be all that is required if you have a social security number. Why should you have to go to court to prove what a doctor already knows? Worst case, a second doctor could verify that the conditions are met. That way, you don't have someone that has no knowledge of your condition in court just making a blind rejection because it's your first try at a disability claim. This appears to be the current practice, and probably part of the reason there is such a long backlog of cases that haven't even been looked at.

Or the government shouldn't be taxing you and promising benefits that aren't really going to be available to you that you have been forced to pay for, which you may never be able to collect if needed.

number3of5 10 years, 2 months ago

I for one have had no problems with my disability claim. It was approved with no difficulty. My anger goes to the Medicare payments that eat into the small amount that I receive.

Ragingbear 10 years, 2 months ago

There are a few flaws in that concept Liberty, but you are not far off the mark on what should be done.

Your right, the Social Security goons refuse to accept your doctor's claim that your disabled. You can chalk that up to the possibility of Dr.Shopping and SS fraud. The Social Security Agency will send you to one of "their" doctors. These are doctors that are paid by Social Security, and get a fat bonus if they say you're fine. That's not some false claim, it's actually policy.

I had to go into my hearing with a stack of paperwork proving my disability that was 5 times thicker than a Lawrence phone book. The judge took one look at it and asked why my case had to go to trial. I wasn't even called into the courtroom. My lawyer went in, did the preliminaries, then I got approved. Too bad it took 3 years from the time I applied.

Christine Pennewell Davis 10 years, 2 months ago

Had a friend that had two forms of cancer and a difibulater in her haeart and ss still turned her down. No this is not a lie she darn near worked herself to death. I am sad to say she has passed but she finally did get her case approved. It is weird I know people that I think should not be on ss get approved without a second look then someone like my friend that have to fight to get what is hers.

Ragingbear 10 years, 2 months ago

I know it's not a lie Mom, There is a person I know of that is paralyzed from the waist down, has 20% capacity in her left arm, 10% in her right. She was still turned down twice and had to go to a hearing on it..

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 10 years, 2 months ago

My brother didn't have any problems getting disability when he had cancer, but the local cancer support group (Ottawa), funded by United Way, claimed he was faking so he didn't have to work. 6 months later I wanted to take his obit in and stick it of their noses, but I couldn't afford bail. Fortunately my brother's church and the hospice care people were great, and helped him die with dignity. I guess I should have sent a letter to United Way to get their funding pulled.

gplash1958 10 years, 2 months ago

This is such a tragedy for our country's disabled. We work all our lives, then become disabled by one means or another and can not hold down gainful employment. Then when we have used up all our savings, maxed out our credit cards, and are on the verge of OR HAVE lost our homes, there is no help out there for us. We can't get state medicaid because SS hasn't deemed us disabled yet. Can't afford to buy medicine or go to the doctor......deplete savings from our other family members. It is a vicious tragedy!! I read in an article written by an ex-SS administrative hearing judge that it cost the Social Security Administration at least $200,000 in administrative costs and that it takes at least 4 staff members to handle one hearing. If they would approve those after the first or second appeal, then the admin costs would not be spent. And the thing is that many of us would never collect $200,000 in disability payments in our lifetimes. So what is their excuse??? I had contacted my senator and was finally told to write a letter of dire need which I did last August......still no hearing!! I have been waiting 24 months for a hearing and it has been 40 months since I first applied. And our country goes on to fund third world countries, the unnecessary war in Iraq, and God knows what else, while our country's disabled get put on the back burner and get worse or even die or commit suicide all due to the redtape in Washington!!! We have become the country's new destitute individuals while Washington sits on their fat wallets!!!

pisafromthewest 10 years, 2 months ago

gplash1958 (Anonymous) says:

"I read in an article written by an ex-SS administrative hearing judge that it cost the Social Security Administration at least $200,000 in administrative costs and that it takes at least 4 staff members to handle one hearing. If they would approve those after the first or second appeal, then the admin costs would not be spent."

What, Social Security rejects claims that should have been approved? They make you wait years to get the payments you have coming to you, causing extreme financial hardship including loss of savings and homes, etc.? They spend ridiculous amounts on administrative costs in the process?

Aren't these the exact same complaints made about private health insurers that the liberals are using to justify turning over our health care to the government?

smot 10 years, 2 months ago

The number of cases applying for disability through the Social Security system over the past 15 years has qaudrupled. In other words, there are four times as many people applying for total disability in 2008 than there were in 1993. Doesn't it seem odd that there has been an emphasis on ergonomic changes in the work places and an avalanche of new medical technology to address disabling conditions over this same 15 year span. Better medical technology, safer work places and 4 times as many people applying for total disability....there seems to be a disconnect here. Social security's definition of total disabilty used to mean that there were no jobs available in the marketplace that the person was qualified to perform; in other words, even sedentary jobs had to be considered and many people are qualified to perform those. It appears that disability is sometimes affected by a personal decision to leave the work force permanently as opposed to the presence of totally disabling medical condtions.

SSDCOALITION 10 years, 1 month ago

As President/Co-Founder of the Social Security Disability Coalition, I see and hear horror stories every day that you cannot even imagine could happen in America. Yet our elected officials have continued for decades to let this problem get worse. It is bi-partisan apathy at its finest. This issue affects every working American and their families. This is an insurance benefit that you are paying for out of your hard earned paychecks, and you could die or lose everything you own trying to get it when you need it most!

During 2006 and 2007, at least 16,000 people fighting for Social Security Disability benefits died while awaiting a decision (CBS News Report Disabled And Waiting - 1/14/08). This is more than 4 times the number of Americans killed in the Iraq war since it began. During 2007, two-thirds of all applicants that were denied - nearly a million people - simply gave up after being turned down the first time (CBS News Report Failing The Disabled - 1/15/08) In 2007 there were 2,190,196 new applications for SSDI benefits.
There are about 1,417,103 total pending cases and out of that number, 154,841 are veterans. Nationally as of January 2008, over 64% of Social Security Disability cases were denied at the initial stage of the disability claims process and it took from 101.8 113.7 days for claimants to receive the initial decision on their claim. If a claimant appeals the initial denial asking for reconsideration, in all but 10 test states where the reconsideration phase has been removed, 87.3% of cases were denied and the waiting time for this phase was an average of 90.1 days.
Over 750,000 are waiting for hearings with an average wait time of 506 days Two-thirds of those who appeal an initial rejection eventually win their cases (New York Times 12/10/07) According to Health Affairs, The Policy Journal of the Health Sphere, 2 February 2, 2005: Disability causes nearly 50% of all mortgage foreclosures, compared to 2% caused by death.
MarketWatch: Illness And Injury As Contributors To Bankruptcy - February 2, 2005 found that: Over half of all personal U.S. bankruptcies, affecting over 2 million people annually, were attributable to illness or medical bills. 15% of all homeowners who had taken out a second or third mortgage cited medical expenses as a reason.

This problem thanks in large part to severe underfunding of the SSA is only going to get worse. You should be outraged and contact all your elected officials now. If you think this could not happen to you - you could be dead wrong!

gplash1958 10 years, 1 month ago

After posting my thoughts on Monday Feb 25 and talking to my senator's office that same day, I heard from my lawyer today that I was approved--no hearing to go to. Now why did they take all this time to say yes......I am blown away and relieved of a heavy burden all at the same time. People!!! Call your Senator's!!!! Maybe that will help.

notajayhawk 10 years, 1 month ago

Multidisciplinary (Anonymous) says:

"I know many people (that's my job) who are on disability. And some who qualify, but work. Those who are on, have real problems. They don't choose to live a life with the minor amount that disability pays. The restrictions on how you must live to get it."

Amen. There are primarily two kinds of disability payments, SSI and SSDI. If it's SSDI we're talking about, then it's THEIR money - SSDI is paid out on what they've been paying into the system for years. If it's SSI, then it's a fixed amount, not exactly sure what it is today but it's around $540 per month. And if you try to work at all, they deduct what you make from that $540. And if you live in a household with someone else who's working, they deduct that from the $540.

I know someone who was disabled since she was a child, not having worked enough to qualify for SSDI (it was from a major back injury that as I said happened when she was a child) she got SSI. When she got married they cut it off because of her husband's income, and when she reapplied after her husband lost his job, they said she wasn't disabled! She, too gave up, as the process had dragged on for over a year, and it was pointless to pursue with him going back to work (too much trouble even though she would have been entitled for the time before he started working). Which, I'm sure, was exactly their intention in delaying the process so long.

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