Archive for Sunday, March 15, 2009

Progress comes slowly in processing disability claims

Applicants afforded little security as cases can still languish for years

Debra Shirar has been waiting for almost 900 days to find out whether she will get disability insurance. In the meantime she is living with a friend, and with the help of some minimal state funding is holding on as best she can. Shirar sits with her friend’s dog at their east Lawrence house.

Debra Shirar has been waiting for almost 900 days to find out whether she will get disability insurance. In the meantime she is living with a friend, and with the help of some minimal state funding is holding on as best she can. Shirar sits with her friend’s dog at their east Lawrence house.

March 15, 2009


Progress comes slowly in processing disability claims

Many in Kansas have had to wait months or years for their disability claims to be processed. Enlarge video

Debbie Shirar has been waiting for almost 900 days to find out whether she will get disability insurance. In the meantime she is living with a friend and with the help of some minimal state funding. Shirar walks with her friend’s dog near their east Lawrence house.

Debbie Shirar has been waiting for almost 900 days to find out whether she will get disability insurance. In the meantime she is living with a friend and with the help of some minimal state funding. Shirar walks with her friend’s dog near their east Lawrence house.

On the last day of 2008, Debra Shirar opened the mailbox and found a letter she had been waiting more than two years to receive.

It was the notice setting the date for her disability hearing. Almost 900 days after she filed a claim for Social Security Disability Insurance, she would finally get her day in court. She cried the whole way back from the mailbox.

“I used to teach, I used to be a prison guard, I used to work on an armored car down on the Plaza in Kansas City. None of that was as stressful as this has been,” Shirar said.

More than 11,000 people are waiting for a disability hearing in front of a judge in either Kansas City or Wichita. In 2008, the average time it took to hear an appeal in Kansas City was 719 days, which is just under the two-year mark. In Wichita, it was 516 days.

A work in progress

John Garlinger, regional spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said progress is being made.

In the past few months, average wait times for hearings have dropped by 100 days in the Kansas City office and by more than 50 in Wichita.

Last year, SSA worked on eliminating all cases more than 1,000 days old and then got rid of all cases 900 days old. Now they are looking at whittling away those cases more than 850 days old.

“We are no less happy that we have cases waiting that long than we did when … we first started really focusing on disability, but we are working our way through it,” Garlinger said.

At Lawrence’s Independence Inc. office, which helps hundreds of people navigate the disability system each year, the wait times have gone down, benefit advocate Rob Tabor said.

More cases are being sent back to the state for special review, which results in faster decisions and frees up hearing spots. However, hardship remains.

“It still takes a long time to wait. We still get a lot of distressed calls, whether it’s due to financial distress or medical distress because treatment options are somewhat limited until you get benefits,” Tabor said.

After years of shrinking or stagnant budgets, more money is being funneled into SSA, meaning more administrative law judges and field workers can be hired to help process the claims.

However, a country in an economic tailspin has also meant more people are filing for disability insurance. In the last quarter of 2008, the country saw a 10 percent increase from the year before in people applying for disability insurance.

Rebecca Ray, corporate communications manager for the Social Security disability representation company Allsup Inc., compared the situation to a traffic jam.

“Even if you add a couple extra lanes or provide a few more exits, you won’t break the blockage if too many cars are flooding the on-ramps to take their place,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Waiting to be heard

Since Shirar applied for disability in October 2006, she has been living with a friend and off the state’s general assistance program. The program gives her $172 a month for food and $144 a month for other living expenses. She has left medicine prescriptions unfilled, stopped physical therapy treatment and held off on replacing her out-of-date eyeglasses.

“It is a tremendous strain,” she said.

Shirar, who worked for 41 years and sometimes two or three jobs at once, has a long list of medical problems. They include a degenerative tailbone and neuropathy in both arms. Since filing for disability, Shirar has worsening arthritis in her knees and is losing her eyesight.

Doctors say she can’t lift more than 10 pounds or work more than four hours a day.

All this was told to the administrative law judge at the March 3 hearing. For the hearing, Shirar showed up two and a half hours early.

“There was no way, no way, I was going to be late or miss or do anything that would negate my being able to have that hearing. I would have crawled to Kansas City if I had to,” Shirar said. “That was one of the most important days of my life.”

Making progress

In August 2007, Kansas was ranked as the worst state in the country for the time it took to process disability claims. Since then, improvements have been made, both in the region and nationally.

SSA has decided to open a hearings office in Topeka, which will take about two years. That office will have five judges and support staff.

“We are constantly looking at workloads and where the work is and what we need to do to solve some of those challenges,” Garlinger said. “By opening up an office in Topeka, we can take some of the pressure off of the Kansas City hearings office.”

Last year two more administrative judges were brought into Wichita, bumping the total to seven judges.

A national hearing center in Albuquerque, N.M., will start picking up 150 cases a month from the Kansas City office. SSA has helped the process by using electronic files and creating compassionate allowances, which fast-track the process for those who have severe or life-threatening medical conditions.

And the numbers in Kansas have dropped. Compared with this time last year, the Kansas City and Wichita offices have 5,000 fewer cases waiting for a hearing.

Nationally, more money is coming into the administration. After a 6 percent increase in the 2009 budget, President Barack Obama’s appropriation bill included another $126.5 million. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has an additional $500 million to help with the disability and retirement workload.

“All that is going to take time to play out on the ground, but there is help on the way from a budget standpoint,” said Andrew Imparato, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities.

Even with a new hearings office in Topeka and more judges on the way, Tabor questions how much difference will be made if a bad economy means more claims. So far, he said, Lawrence hasn’t seen an increase.

“These things may be just enough to keep the backlog from getting worse,” Tabor said. “There might be reason to be optimistic if not for the state of the economy.”

Shirar’s case isn’t over. She is still waiting for a judge’s decision, which is expected to take up to 90 days. If her claim is approved, she could receive $820 to $1,320 a month in disability benefits. She would also get back pay for the years she has waited for her claim to be approved, minus the state’s general assistance money.

If denied, Shirar will appeal.

“I will fight it,” she said. “I feel like I haven’t been a couch potato on the work end. I feel like it is my money.”


Cait McKnelly 9 years, 1 month ago

This in no way negates the mandatory one year waiting period that you have to be unemployed after you file. Many people with cancer and other terminal diseases die in that waiting period without ever drawing a single check. In fact, I was told by an SSA employee that this is deliberate. The only exception to that rule are people with kidney failure who are on dialysis. They are the ONLY people who can qualify without going through the mandatory waiting period as without dialysis it would be legalized murder (not that deliberately forcing people with terminal diseases to go through it isn't). This waiting period is codified law; law that our Congress passed. On top of that, it's a given that your very first application for disability will be denied. No one, and I mean no one, gets disability on their first pass through. All applications have to be appealed at least once and sometimes as many as three or four times. Many times you have to hire an attorney to get it (who in turn gets a cut of the back pay). On the one hand I can understand it; people have ripped off this system over and over again. especially people who claim disability due to so called "mental issues". On the other hand there has to be a way to keep those people who desperately need it and need it now from having to suffer.

WHY 9 years, 1 month ago

If she can work 4 hours a day then maybe she should. A telephone doesn't weigh 10 pounds and she can sit up so maybe a job as a secretary would work.

Bobbi Walls 9 years, 1 month ago

cait 48 you are wrong... not all applications have to be appealed. It depends on the situation. My husband started receiving disability within 6 months of being diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme tumor and we never had to appeal.

Niraj Shah 9 years, 1 month ago

I wish Ms. Shirar the best and that she gets what she has earned. It is unfortunate that people who really need their disability have to suffer because of the misdeeds of others.

The worst part is she has to forgo medications and other necessities which probably make her condition worst and she cannot work because of her condition. There needs to be a way to help these people, thank god she has friends to help her.

justthefacts 9 years, 1 month ago

I have had several friends spend years appealing disability decisions, and eventually being awarded that designation and the back pay they did not get during the time. The reason usually given is/was the number of fake claims that used to get awards (people who could work, but did not want to). So the system made it harder to get thru. Luckily, my friends had family to help support them until they got thru the system. In both cases, they would not have made it without an attorney. The system is now set up so that it's very hard to get on permanent disability (to weed out those who could work, albiet it for less time or money, etc.), and those without an attorney (who takes a set % cut) are far less likely to get a full disability determination. Moral of the story if you are trying to get it -be preparred for a long wait and get an experienced attorney. Almost everyone has to appeal their case. This woman may very well not get it at this point.

WHY 9 years, 1 month ago

She is walking a dog and siting in a chair watching television. Don't tell me it only hurts when she works.

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