Disability backlog creating hardship

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

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.