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St Louis Attorney Cites Study On Social Security Hearing Backlog

Dec. 19, 2009

Stringing along those who deserve benefits

Mike Ervin, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

We must stop the inexcusable delay in getting Social Security benefits to people with disabilities.Hundreds of thousands of people who have filed legitimate disability claims with the Social Security Administration have been forced to wait, on average, an astonishing 520 days for a hearing on their claims. Many have waited as long as three years, losing their homes in the process.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has conceded that some people have even died while waiting for their disability payments to come through.

That’s mostly because the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress have provided $4 billion less than the agency has requested for its staffing needs.

The result, according to Sylvester J. Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, is “crushing backlogs, rapidly growing application rates and steadily declining numbers of workers to process the workloads.”

There are fewer people working at the Social Security Administration today than there were during the Ford administration. But the number of applicants claiming a disability has doubled since 2001 and is growing so rapidly that it is estimated that the backlogs of people waiting more than a year will bloat to 1 million by 2010.

Congress and the White House have been well aware of this crisis. The Advisory Board has issued 21 reports and statements since 1998 calling for more resources for Social Security disability programs.

Meanwhile, the situation keeps getting worse. The backlog has grown from 311,000 in 2000 to 755,000 today, according to The New York Times.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., put it well in a letter he sent to President Bush in September. “The bottom line is,” Dorgan wrote, “that elderly Americans and other poor individuals with disabilities that prevent them earning a living and paying their bills deserve better. Social Security disability benefits keep millions of disabled Americans out of poverty. But these people who are unable to work and need immediate assistance to avoid financial collapse do not appear to be a priority for your administration.”

What’s more, most of these people filing for disability claims have already paid into the Social Security system by virtue of the deductions from their paychecks. And fraud is rare, Astrue acknowledges.

Imagine if this were a private insurance company collecting disability insurance premiums and then stringing its customers along for years when they need to collect. This would be seen as a major case of insurance fraud.

But in Washington, it’s business as usual.

That’s got to change.

(Mike Ervin is a disability-rights activist with ADAPT ( He wrote this article for the Progressive Media Project.)