Disability benefits appeals backlog continues to increase

The backlog of applicants waiting for appeals of denied Social Security Disability Insurance benefits is at an all-time high.

Much media attention has come lately to the backlog of veterans currently waiting for care at the nation's understaffed and underfunded Veterans Administration (VA) hospitals, causing well-deserved outrage on the part of servicemember and healthcare advocacy groups. The hope is that, by drawing scrutiny to the VA's clearly deficient processes and procedures, change can come that will allow the nearly 530,000 veterans awaiting medical attention to get the care they both need and deserve after serving our country.

Though the VA backlog is certainly substantial, and action needs to be taken immediately to remedy that situation, there is actually a government program with an even bigger proverbial "log jam" standing in the way of much-needed assistance: Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)/Supplemental Security Income (SSI) appeals. There are currently almost one million people waiting for decisions on appeals they filed after being initially denied for SSDI or SSI benefits.

The sad truth

According to a recent Washington Post expose, applicants regularly wait a year or more before their appeal can be heard by one of the 1,445 Administrative Law Judges on the Social Security Administration's staff. Meanwhile, these applicants are unable to work in any capacity due to their disabling medical conditions. The majority of them must thus sit idly by while their financial situation worsens and they could even be losing out on much-needed medical care because they can't afford treatment. One judge contacted by the Post revealed that she has had claimants die while awaiting a decision, and anecdotal evidence suggests that hers isn't the only court in which that tragedy has occurred.

Asking why

To the outside world, it seems odd that it should take such a long time for a judge to make a decision about a disability applicant's appeal. Notwithstanding that there simply aren't enough judges to keep up with the demand of SSA appeals - an estimated 70 to 75 percent of initial disability applications are initially denied, so there is a high appeal rate - the process itself is based upon laws, regulations and occupational descriptions that are, in some cases, hopelessly outdated.

The first step in the SSA's appeals process is "reconsideration," when a different SSA claims examiner will review the application to determine if the original examiner's denial was proper. Only after reconsideration can an applicant get a hearing before a judge.

Keep in mind that the process up to this point can take months or upwards of a year in addition to any time spent waiting before the initial claim was denied. This doesn't even take into account the fact that overworked judges can have a full docket for months in advance, so there is an additional waiting period required before a hearing can be held. If outside experts like vocational specialists or independent physicians are needed, things could take even longer.

Moving forward

While there are many issues with the current system, including its outdated job titles and duties and a pressing need for additional staffers, disability benefits provide a financial lifeline for many people suffering from debilitating conditions that prevent them from working. If you have a serious medical condition and haven't been able to work - or anticipate that you won't be able to work - for a year or more, you may be eligible for SSDI or SSI benefits. Should you pursue disability payments, you have a statistically better chance of being awarded benefits (either at the initial stage or upon appeal) if you work with an experienced Social Security Disability attorney like those at the law office of Wagner & Wagner, Attorneys at Law.

Keywords: social security disability, SSDI, supplemental security income, SSI