Social Security Disability System Broken
The Social Security disability system is ridiculously overburdened, the NYT details.
Steadily lengthening delays in the resolution of Social Security disability claims have left hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory, now waiting as long as three years for a decision. Two-thirds of those who appeal an initial rejection eventually win their cases. But in the meantime, more and more people have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or even died while awaiting an appeals hearing, say lawyers representing claimants and officials of the Social Security Administration, which administers disability benefits for those judged unable to work or who face terminal illness.
The agency’s new plan to hire at least 150 new appeals judges to whittle down the backlog, which has soared to 755,000 from 311,000 in 2000, will require $100 million more than President Bush requested this year and still more in the future. The plan has been delayed by the standoff between Congress and the White House over domestic appropriations.
There are 1,025 judges currently at work, and the wait for an appeals hearing averages more than 500 days, compared with 258 in 2000. Without new hirings, federal officials predict even longer waits and more of the personal tragedies that can result from years of painful uncertainty.
The disability process is complex and the standard for approval has, from the inception of the program in the 1950s, been intentionally strict to prevent malingering and drains on the Treasury. But it is also inevitably subjective in some cases, like those involving mental illness or pain that cannot be tested.
In a standard tougher than those of most private plans, recipients must prove that because of physical or mental disabilities they are unable to do “any kind of substantial work” for at least 12 months — if an engineer could not do his job but could work as a clerk, he would not qualify — or an illness is expected “to result in death.”
Of the roughly 2.5 million disability applicants each year now, about two-thirds are turned down initially by state agencies, which make decisions with federal oversight based on paper records but no face-to-face interview. Most of those who are refused give up at that point or after a failed request for local reconsideration. But of the more than 575,000 who go on to file appeals — putting them in the vast line for a hearing before a special federal judge — two-thirds eventually win a reversal.
Mr. Astrue and other officials attribute the high number of reversals to several causes. Those who file appeals tend to be those with stronger cases and lawyers who help them gather persuasive medical data. During the extended waiting period, a person’s condition may worsen, strengthening the case. The judges see applicants in person, and have more discretion to grant benefits in borderline cases.
If the point of the system is to minimize the number of borderline applicants getting disability payments, it’s a resounding success. The process weeds out 1.6 million people each year, after all. And 192,000 plus people each year who had attorneys are denied payment, too.
One would think, though, that the purpose of the system is to provide assistance to the disabled. If so, then this is a disaster.
Presumably, some significant number of the 1.1 million initially denied benefits each year who decide not to appeal would in fact have won had they appealed. Maybe they’re mostly borderline cases. Quite likely, though, they either 1) presume that the government denied them benefits, so they’re simply not eligible or 2) lack the resources (knowledge, ability to afford an attorney, etc.) to continue the fight.
More significantly, the 383,000 or so people who win their appeal each year are forced to endure, for two or three years, the expense and stress of a process ostensibly designed to ease their burden.
While the piece frames this largely as a political squabble between the White House and Congress, the sheer numbers involved would seem to indicate that this is largely a demographic issue; the result of the long-expected explosion in entitlement needs of the Baby Boom generation. Hiring more judges and staff to break through the backlog is likely necessary but, given the size of the problem, it’s likely that a more radical overhaul of the process itself is necessary. Surely, there ought to be a way to provide reasonable checks and balances while providing at least a means for interim approval of people with demonstrated need.