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Social Security Cuts Disability Backlog

Social Security Reducing Disability Backlog; Advocates Say Agency Must Do More

(AP) An infusion of cash from Congress and President Bush will help the Social Security Administration cut into the monthslong backlog for disability benefits for thousands of Americans, officials said Thursday.

However, advocates said a one-time budget increase won't be enough to solve the problem, and they urged Congress to give the agency another cash infusion to battle the long waits faced by those seeking disability benefits.

Millions of Americans who believe they can no longer work because of severe physical or mental impairments apply for cash disability benefits from the Social Security Administration.

But to get the benefits, a person must first have a determination made by the state. If the claim is denied, then the person can appeal the denial to the Social Security hearing office.

There were 8,936,940 people receiving an average of $859.82 in monthly disability benefits in January, according to agency figures. But by the end of the month, another 751,767 disability cases were waiting for a hearing decision, Social Security officials said, leading to average wait times of 499 days _ about 16+ months.

The number of people waiting includes 91,000 veterans, with nearly 300,000 of those appeals a year old, said Richard Warsinskey of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, Inc.

"It is a moral imperative to reduce the disability backlogs, which have caused an incredible hardship for disabled workers and their families," Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told a House Appropriations subcommittee on Thursday.

Social Security officials say the backlog is a combination of a lack of administrative law judges, an increased number of cases, a shift in the department's workload and Congress' continual underfunding of the department.

But in the current year's $9.7 billion budget, Congress gave the Social Security Administration an additional $148 million to address the disability backlog. Now, President Bush's 2009 budget proposal of $10.327 billion would give the agency a 6 percent increase or nearly $600 million extra, Astrue said.

That will allow them to process an additional 85,000 hearings, "ultimately reducing the number of hearings pending from over 750,000 to 683,000 in one year," he said.

The agency is also working on tackling the cases of people who have been waiting the longest, Astrue said.

On Oct. 1, 2006, he said, "there were over 63,000 hearing requests that would have been 1,000 or more days old on September 30, 2007. ... By Sept. 30, SSA had reduced that number to 108 and since then the remaining cases have been processed."

But agency advocates said the 2009 increase still isn't enough, considering the influx of baby boomer applications that Social Security is about to confront. Astrue said they expect retirement claims to rise by 40 percent and initial disability claims will go by nearly 10 percent.

"In order for SSA to meet its responsibilities, we estimate that the agency needs a minimum of $11 billion," said Matt Ford, co-chair of the Social Security Task Force of the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities.

Astrue said the agency plans to hire a 150 new administrative law judges this spring, but a judge's advocate said simply hiring more judges won't solve the problem.

Ronald G. Bernoski, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said the judges won't be able to do anything if they don't have support staff, he said. "To hire 175 new judges without hiring the necessary staff is like buying 175 new trucks but only enough fuel to operate 20 of those trucks," Bernoski said.


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