The American Association for Disability Policy Reform    

—   rehabilitation first   —

Waiting for a Decision

Persons applying for disability benefits, many of whom are impoverished by their illnesses, often wait for years to get a decision.   Some die waiting.   Others lose their homes.   Here are two examples:

The Social Security Inspector General recently found that 84% of those who had to wait for a decision by an administrative law judge suffered some impact, such as not being able to pay for food, clothing and shelter, the loss of their homes, the loss of medical care and disrupted personal relationships.   Cases have been known to take as long as 14 years to reach a final decision.

The backlog of applicants waiting for a decision started early in the program's history.   In a 1957 report on the disability program, Arthur Hess reported a backlog of about 280,000 applications.   He hoped it could be reduced to a tolerable level within a year.

It never happened.   Instead, the number waiting for decisions increased and is now about 2,100,000.   Although much attention has been directed recently at reducing the number waiting for a hearing by an administrative law judge, this effort produced only a temporary reduction and history tells us that attention to reducing the backlog at one step almost always results in an increased backlog at the next decision step.   Recent attempts to reduce the number of applicants waiting for hearings has caused increased appeals to the Appeals Council.   The Social Security Administration has countered by having its lawyers quickly affirm ("rubber stamp") administrative law judges' denials.

The Social Security Administration doesn't like to talk about the true number of people waiting for decisions.   If it must, it would rather talk about the "backlog" of cases, which it defines as the number exceeding an "optimal" number.   From 1999 to 2006 it made 300,000 the "optimal" number waiting for a hearing.   In May 2007, it increased the "optimal" number to 400,000, magically reducing the "backlog" by 100,000.   In September 2008 it made the "optimal" number 466,000, again magically reducing its "backlog," by another 66,000.   Meanwhile, no one was helped by the reductions in what the Social Security Administration calls the "backlog."   The number of people waiting for decisions grew.

The measures used so far to reduce the backlog have failed because they do not address the root causes: (1) a disability program which encourages disability applicants to apply, appeal and reapply until they win the "disability lottery" (details), (2) very inadequate investigation of disability applicants (details) and (3) very inadequate federal support for vocational rehabilitation (details) for those who want to return to work.   In order to have a permanent positive effect on the backlog, any measures will have to address the root causes.   Until then, the backlog will continue and applicants will suffer the consequences.


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Last updated on 2/10/14.