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.
In recent years, a new trend has become apparent in the field of Social Security Disability: a reduction in approval of SSD cases that proceed to the hearing phase –from approximately two-thirds of cases being approved, down to fewer than half.
The bottom line for Social Security Disability applicants is that severely disabled applicants now face big hurdles to receiving disability benefits. When a judge is deciding the merits of an application, the decision often boils down to small details that the ordinary person might consider unimportant when filling out their application.
That’s why Halpern Law Group is now offering a new Application Assistance Program for no additional fee. Our fee remains the same (as mandated by the government): we are only paid if the client wins their case.
Representing a client from the initial application allows a more thorough understanding of the client’s case. Crucial steps are taken at the beginning of the application process and having someone familiar with this process who knows the law is beneficial. Furthermore, documentation submitted in the early stages of the process may have a substantial impact on everything that follows, most importantly the likelihood of prevailing in a claim.
The SSA disability process can be extremely time consuming, confusing and overwhelming. As a holistically focused law firm, we hope that our clients return to wellness so that they can begin working again. If they are not able to achieve wellness in the short term, our role is to focus on proving that our clients meet the SSA disability criteria. At HLG, we strive to provide peace of mind to our clients and believe that this new service will enable us to do just that.
HLG is very excited to have Sarah Kelley as a new legal assistant. Sarah grew up in Northern California, moving to Bend in 2001. Sarah has spent her career working in various social service organizations. Her most recent employment was with Deschutes County Mental Health, where she developed their homeless outreach program and served as their Homeless Outreach Coordinator. In conjunction with that position, she assisted clients in filing their Social Security disability applications. Sarah’s talent came to the attention of HLG when she was the co-chair of the Central Oregon Homeless Leadership Coalition. Sarah is well-respected in the community and has worked closely with many of the social service organizations in the area.
Sarah is currently pursuing a Masters in Social Work through Portland State University. Through her internship, she has been creating a social service program at the Deschutes Public Library, where she works to connect library customers with the community supports they need.
Sarah is working with HLG as they expand their services to include Social Security disability applications. She is meeting with clients to assist them with the process, be it in the HLG office, over the phone or at the SSA office. Sarah is extremely helpful assisting clients navigate the application process which can sometimes be daunting.
Sarah, her husband and three teenage children enjoy living in Bend and taking advantage of all the area has to offer. Sarah especially enjoys the summer season in Bend: camping, kayaking and growing a garden.
Sarah’s vast knowledge and experience with the private and governmental agencies and individuals in Central Oregon will be an invaluable asset to our clients and she will be instrumental in helping HLG execute it’s holistic approach to serving the Central Oregon disabled community.