Disability backlog tops 1M; thousands die on waitlist

WASHINGTON — More than 1 million Americans await a hearing to see whether they qualify for disability benefits from Social Security, with the average wait nearly two years — longer than some of them will live.

All have been denied benefits at least once, as most applications are initially rejected. But in a system where the outcome of a case often depends on who decides it, most people who complete the appeals process will eventually win benefits. The numbers come from data compiled by the Social Security Administration.

About 10.5 million people get disability benefits from Social Security. An additional 8 million get disability benefits from Supplemental Security Income, the disability program for poor people who don’t qualify for Social Security. The disability programs are much smaller than Social Security’s giant retirement program. Still, the agency paid out $197 billion in disability payments last year.

Recipients won’t get rich as the average benefit is $1,037 a month — too small to lift a family of two out of poverty.

For some, the benefits come too late.

Chris Hoffman worked as a mason, laying bricks and tile and pouring concrete. He had terrible back pain for much of his life, but he kept working until a series of heart attacks. He applied for Social Security disability benefits in 2014 but was denied. He appealed to an administrative law judge.

In November, Hoffman died at 58, following his fourth heart attack. Ten months later, the judge ruled that he was entitled to benefits.

“It wasn’t that he was limited, it was that he wasn’t able to do anything,” said Hoffman’s son, Dustin.

Last year there were 7,400 people on waitlists who were dead, according to a report by Social Security’s inspector general.

For someone to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, a doctor must determine that the disability is severe enough to prevent an applicant from working. The disability must last at least a year or could result in death.

If applicants can’t perform their old jobs, officials see if they can adapt to new ones.

The Social Security Administration says it is working to reduce the backlog by hiring 500 new administrative law judges and more than 600 support staff. The judges, who now number about 1,600, hear appeals from people who were initially denied benefits. The agency is also expanding a program that quickly awards benefits to people with serious illnesses and conditions, including certain cancers, said Bea Disman, the agency’s acting chief…

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