When I talk about the disability claims process, one of the most important things I can do for folks needing help during this difficult time is to make sure they know what to expect. This is especially true when it comes to the amount of time it could take from initial filing to a favorable decision.
When Georgia Congressman John Lewis set reduction of SSA’s disability case backlog as one of his top priorities, the Atlanta North processing time for claims was the worst in the country at 828 days, and in Atlanta proper it was 750 days. He noted that “people are waiting years for benefits they deserve, some are even dying while waiting. This is simply wrong…Somehow the richest, most powerful nation in the world must find a way to meet the needs of these Americans. They have suffered enough. They should not suffer at the hands of their government.”
Mr. Lewis testified before the Budget Committee, and urged his colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee to give SSA the funds needed to hire more Administrative Law Judges and disability claims staff.
Last month, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue announced that for the first time in a decade, the agency ended its fiscal year with fewer pending disability hearings than in the previous year. It closed FY 2009 with 722,822 pending hearings – a reduction of more than 37,000 cases from its 760,813 hearings pending at the start of the fiscal year. Processing time for cases also improved over the same period, dropping from an average of 514 days in FY 2008 to 491 days in FY 2009.
“Our backlog reduction plan is working, and progress is accelerating,” Commissioner Astrue said. “Even in the face of a significant increase in our workloads as a result of the worst recession since the Great Depression, we have reduced the hearings backlog for nine consecutive months. Thanks to the efforts of thousands of hardworking Social Security employees and the additional funding we received from President Obama and the Congress, we have exceeded our backlog reduction goal for this year.” Click on the link to see SSA’s recent news release discussing these developments.
Despite Commissioner Astrue’s positive spin on the statistical improvement, in real life I am still seeing delays of 2 to 3 years. We are seeing some cases processing through the case very quickly and I suspect that these fast tracked cases have something to do with making the statistics look better.
We have also seen thousands of cases shifted from the Atlanta North hearing office to Atlanta and from Atlanta to Columbus and Macon. These temporary fixes may result in a short term improvement in the statistics related to delays but only time will tell if the recent backlog improvement is a true trend.
We are also seeing increasing delays in the processing of hearing decisions following the hearings. I have several cases in my office that I tried in March in which a hearing decision has not yet been issued. The hearing offices advise us that they do not have enough staff to help the judges.
I do think that Commissioner Astrue is making the backlog a priority in his office and I applaud him for his efforts. Moving a large bureaucracy like SSA is not an easy task and I wish him the best of luck in this undertaking.