No End in Sight for Rising Backlog of Disability Appeals

Hundreds of thousands of Social Security disability (SSD) claimants are waiting up to three years for a resolution of their disability appeals, according to a Dec. 10, 2007, article in the New York Times.

During the long wait for an appeals hearing, more and more claimants are losing their homes, filing for bankruptcy, dying from their illnesses or even committing suicide. The average wait now exceeds 500 days, and the backlog of cases numbers 755,000; in 2000 the wait was 258 days and the backlog was 311,000 cases.

The Social Security Administration's (SSA) plan to hire 150 appeals judges to tackle the backlog is caught in the showdown between Congress and the White House over domestic appropriations. President Bush proposed a $9.6 billion budget for the SSA for fiscal year 2008, but an additional $100 million is needed to hire more SSA judges. Congress had approved an increase of $275 million for the SSA in November, but Bush vetoed the bill that included the increase. If the standoff continues and the government operates through continuing resolutions, the SSAA's spending will remain at last year's level, which would not only scuttle the plan for new judges but conceivably lead to furloughs, according to SSA Commissioner Michael A. Astrue.

The increased backlog in appeals over the last decade is the result of litigation, funding shortages, and the rising number of SSD applications from baby boomers in their 50s and 60s. About 2.5 million disability cases are filed each year, two-thirds of which are denied initially by state agencies based solely on the documentary record. Most claimants give up at that point or after their request for local reconsideration is denied. But two-thirds of the more than 575,000 claimants who appeal eventually win reversals after a hearing before an SSA judge.

Federal officials predict that the lack of additional judges will mean even longer waits and more personal hardships for claimants. The long delays are also a strain for state welfare agencies that provide cash assistance to some SSD claimants during their long wait for an appeals hearing.

Like his predecessors, Commissioner Astrue has promised faster decisions. He indicated that the SSA has begun a process for the speedier initial approval for claimants who are clearly eligible and that more hearings are being held by video. But indications are that there will be no significant impact on the backlog without major increases in funding, judges, and support staff.

For the full text of the New York Times article, "Disability Cases Last Longer as Backlog Rises," go to: (Free registration required and article is available free of charge for only one week.)