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Social Security Disability Delays Cost Lives

A Window Into the Disability Backlog

Pennsylvania workers' compensationLast month, The Washington Post published a report on the effects of a growing backlog of Social Security Disability cases. The article focused on a hearing day in the life of one applicant in Mississippi. His story highlights the struggles of many Americans waiting for a disability hearing, the result of a system suffering under a host of regulatory and personnel issues.

A Dangerous Waiting Game

In 2012, the average time claimants across the nation had to wait for their hearing was just under a year, at 353 days. Since then, the backlog of cases has grown to over 1.1 million Americans. With only 1,600 judges in the system to hear those cases, the average wait skyrocketed to 596 days this summer. This increased wait time is not simply a matter of convenience, however: it is actually claiming lives. 2016 saw 8,699 people die while waiting for a hearing on whether or not they deserved the support they needed to survive. According to data collected by the Washington Post, fiscal year 2017 had a 15% increase for a total of 10,002 deaths.

Association of Administrative Law Judges president Marilyn Zahm condemned the longer waits. “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,” she stated, expressing concern that the number of deaths would continue to rise.

A Complex System

While the number of those receiving disability and retirement benefits has increased by seven million people, the budget for Social Security has not seen significant change to keep up since 2010. This lack of funds provides a simple explanation for the backlog of cases, but it leaves a lot of the story untold.

A major factor is that the judges hearing these cases do not have enough supporting staff to meet the demand. New regulations demand more medical evidence per case, which in turn puts thicker files on a judge’s desk. Growing unemployment during recession conditions was tied to an increase in disability applications. Lacking necessary support to keep up with these changes, the process has slowed down. This was even more complicated after a judge in West Virginia was found to be accepting bribes, which sparked increased scrutiny into cases and the way judges handle them. The average judge went from deciding on 12 cases per week to fewer than 10. This may seem like a small change per judge, but multiplied by 1,600 judges each working fewer cases per week, it takes very few weeks to see a significant slowdown.

As the demand for hearings increases and regulations shift, competition for the available funds will only grow. It is vitally important that applicants have the support of an experienced Social Security Disability lawyer who knows how to navigate this complex system.

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