Every year, millions of American’s who are unable to work due to disabling physical and mental conditions apply for Social Security Disability and/or Supplemental Security Income. Awaiting approval on an application and navigating the appeals process can take years, which for many applicants can be financially arduous since they typically have little to no source of income while they wait. Much of the prolonged delay is due to the fact that the Social Security Administration is facing the largest hearings backlog in its agency’s history. As of March 2015, the Office of the Inspector General reported that the SSA had about 1 million people awaiting a decision at the hearing level.1 That’s equivalent to the entire combined populations of Vermont & Wyoming.
The breaking point for this slow-building backlog began in 2007 when the SSA’s pending level was 743,800 cases with an average processing time (APT) at the hearing level of 512 days. (Please note: this is the time from when a claimant requests a hearing, which is the third step in the process if the claimant was denied at the first two steps. The first two steps alone can take up to a year.) The SSA announced a plan to reduce the number of pending hearings to 466,000 and reduce the APT to 270 days by the end of the 2013 fiscal year. 1 Fast-forward to today – the national average is 1 million pending cases with an APT of 450 days. As of October 2015, the APT for the Eugene hearings office, which serves all of Central Oregon claimants, was 500 days.2 Therefore Central Oregon claimants, when combining the wait time at the first two steps of the process, may wait up to two and a half years to have a hearing with a judge. Consequently, it’s clear that the SSA’s efforts to eliminate the hearing backlog have been unsuccessful, and we are once again approaching new record high wait times.
So Now What?
The SSA still plans to achieve their goal of reducing the backlog of pending hearings to 270 days by 2020. They hope to achieve their goal by increasing the number of judges, making use of new technology and allowing new leadership to tackle the problem. In the meantime, claimants should visit their local department of human services to learn about other avenues of assistance in their immediate area, like qualifying for food stamps, privately run assistance programs and charitable organizations. A great place to start is Oregon.gov. Or, feel free to contact Halpern Law Group if you want more information.