Surprise? – There’s a Backlog in Social Security Disability Cases

As if it were “new” or “news,” an Associated Press report in the January 2, 2009 Philadelphia Inquirer discussed the “huge backlog of [Social Security disability] cases.”  Unfortunately, this isn’t news, it’s “olds.” For years, the Social Security system has been plagued with delays, and the backlog ebbs and flows with the economy and with the amount of funding SSA receives. Currently understaffed and facing an onslaught of claims, the system is way behind. On average, it now takes 480 days for an Adminsitrative Law Judge (ALJ) to rule on a claim. In the Philadelphia area, the average delay is only about one year.

 Here’s the problem. When workers pay into Social Security, they are buying both old age benefits and disability coverage. If they cannot work because of a disability (before their retirement age), workers can apply for Social Security disability benefits. Their claims are processed by an agency in their own state, which denies the majority of the claims. From that point, they can request a hearing before an ALJ. The one year delay, therefore, is calculated after the ALJ’s office receives the applicant’s file – and that, of course, is months (or a year or more) after the initial application is made. So, in reality, an SSD claimant can wait two or more years for benefits.

Having represented SSD claimants for nearly a quarter of a century, I have seen the average “delay” shrink and increase – although the current delays are some of the worst ever. Clients are not happy when I explain how long the process takes, but I don’t want them getting frustrated with me, so I believe it’s important to let them know what they face up front. In the long run, they appreciate the candor, even if they don’t appreciate the message.

It will take money – to pay for increased staff – to start to fix the system. Fortunately, in the Philadelphia area, our delays are shorter than  the national average, and hoepfully they will be reduced even more. Let’s hope so. Most Social Security disability claimants have worked most of their lives and need the SSD benefits to survive. Plus, they receive Medicare after being on SSD, and that can be an enormous benefit. Let’s hope the Obama adminstration addresses the situation.