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Wait for Social Security benefits is getting longer

The Social Security Administration (SSA) may be losing its battle against the backlog of disability cases, according to an analysis of its data by a New York-based nonprofit.

“In particular, the data show that while progress had initially been made, the hoped for reduction in backlogged matters ground to a halt in the last 12 months,” a report by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) says. “Since then the number of pending cases grew by 5 percent. More success has been achieved in reducing average wait times.”

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are separate programs administered by the Social Security Administration. SSDI pays about $1,500 per month on average to workers who become disabled; SSI pays about $1,000 per month to disabled people with no history of work. Both programs use the same criteria to screen applicants, who must prove their disability. The system can take a few months to award benefits but often applicants are forced to wait much longer—two or more years—while they appeal their cases to quasi-courts presided over by administrative law judges (ALJs).

The Social Security Administration is headquartered in Woodlawn. Maryland currently has more than 7,000 pending disability cases, according to TRAC’s data, a figure that appears to put it on the lower end of the spectrum among states. All Maryland cases are handled by the Baltimore hearing office (which is at 1010 Park Ave., not at the national headquarters office). Pennsylvania, by contrast, has 44,057 cases pending in eight offices, including two in Philadelphia that together have more than 11,000 pending cases. Taking population differences into account, Pennsylvania’s waiting list is almost three times as long as Maryland’s. Some 50,000 Baltimore residents are collecting some form of disability payment, Social Security figures indicate.

The number of applicants for disability has exploded during the past two decades, and waiting times increased to an average of more than 500 days. The long wait times have left some desperately poor applicants with virtually no income for years. The system is complicated enough that many applicants hire lawyers to steer their cases through it, at a cost of thousands of dollars (“Hardly Working,” Feature, June 1). In 2007, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue vowed to cut the backlog, and appeared to be making progress—despite yet another spike in applications owing to the economic downturn.

In the administration’s performance and accountability report for fiscal year 2010, Astrue said he had “made elimination of our hearings backlog our number one priority” and had “steadily reduced the hearings backlog despite receiving nearly 100,000 more hearing requests than we did in [fiscal year] 2009.” He said the Social Security Administration had by September 2010 reduced average hearing processing time to “below 400 days for the first time in six years.”

But Astrue also moved the goalposts, according to TRAC, which is headquartered at Syracuse University and, since 1989, has used private grants to pursue Freedom of Information Act requests of federal agencies. “In 2007 [SSA] set a goal of permanent elimination of the ‘backlog’ by 2012, modified during 2008 to eliminating it by 2013,” TRAC’s report, which is available online at tinyurl.com/trac2011, says. “Up until May 2007, a ‘backlog’ had been defined as anything over 300,000 pending cases. Then the SSA’s definition was changed and the agency said it would consider the backlog eliminated when the pending cases were brought down to 400,000. In September 2008, the backlog elimination target was raised again to 466,000.”

There are currently more than 722,000 cases pending.

The SSA has faced a funding shortage in recent years. Despite statistics that show that every dollar invested in disability review returns about $10 in savings, “regular SSA audits to make sure that a disabled person is still qualified have fallen behind,” the TRAC report says. The SSDI fund is already in deficit and is projected to run out of money in a few years—decades ahead of Social Security’s main retirement program—adding to the pressure on administrators.

In a press release, Social Security’s Astrue called TRAC’s report “sloppy” and “irresponsible,” adding that “TRAC’s focus on the number of pending hearings is a flawed measurement of our improving service and bears little relevance to the public’s experience. Due to the economic downturn and the aging of the baby boomers, our workloads have been skyrocketing. We received 130,000 more hearing requests in 2010 than we received in 2008. Despite this increase, we have steadily improved service. We are deciding more cases, and deciding them more quickly.” The statement calls on “Syracuse University to separate itself from this report and its authors.”

The press release, sent to news organizations, was the first feedback TRAC got. “They did not get back to us,” says Susan Long, a statistician and professor at Syracuse University’s Whitman School of Management and co-author of the TRAC report. Her co-author, former New York Times reporter David Burnham, says he shared TRAC’s findings with the SSA more than a week before releasing the report but heard nothing back until a reporter e-mailed him a copy of the press release.

In an e-mail, Burnham called Astrue’s comments “a failed effort to distract the public from the basic fact documented by TRAC’s analysis.”

Over the years, TRAC has ruffled government feathers many times. It sued the U.S. Department of Justice to get withheld documents, and has more recently concentrated on disparities in the decisions made by immigration judges. This is its first report on the Social Security Administration.

“There are many court-like bodies set up in federal government, because there are a lot of decisions to be made,” Long says. “But [administrative law judges] are a whole different world [from regular courts]. And we had found disparities in their decisions in looking at the immigration court system, which has a similar situation—a huge volume of cases, big backlog, etc.—and so we thought it was very fruitful to monitor them and provide the public with better information.”

The TRAC report cites a recent class-action lawsuit filed in Queens, N.Y., against eight sitting ALJs, allegedly because they reject too many claims. Queens currently has fewer than 3,000 pending cases. The opposite situation can also be a problem, the report says: “In late May, for example, David B. Daugherty—a judge based in Huntington, West Virginia—was placed on administrative leave after the Wall Street Journal published a report stating that in the first six months of FY 2011, Judge Daugherty had awarded benefits in every one of his 729 cases.”

But it is not possible to understand a city’s disability caseload without taking into account the number and percentage of cases transferred in and out of the local office. The SSA is moving cases from office to office, and sometimes state to state, in order to reduce the dockets. Many hearings are now conducted via videoconference, TRAC reports.

“Transfers have become such a huge tool in their attempts to even out workloads,” Long says, “that you can’t just assume that growth or decline is related to cases coming into that office any more.”

Baltimore transferred 941 more cases into its court than it transferred out last year, the data show, while offices as diverse as the Bronx, N.Y., Charleston, S.C., and Cleveland, Ohio, transferred thousands out of their jurisdictions to relieve the backlog. Cleveland transferred more than 5,000 cases out of its jurisdiction, Detroit more than 4,700, and Orlando, Fla., more than 3,500.

According to the TRAC report, “in [fiscal year] 2010 the volume of transfer activity was equivalent to almost half of the number of new appeals that were filed that same year.”

“We think of this as an insurance program for people who become disabled,” Long says, “and it doesn’t do much good if you have to wait forever to become qualified.” ■

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