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Social Security Disability Hearing Delays in Tampa Bay and Propsed Legislation to Speed Up Your Hearing

A Times Editorial

Cut short disability’s cruel waiting game

In print: Friday, July 18, 2008

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The government insurance that is owed to people who are no longer capable of working is no less urgent than that paid to a family left homeless after a flood. But the Social Security Administration has turned disability insurance into a waiting game so cruel as to sometimes claim lives before paying claims.

The bill that U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, is introducing in Congress would finally put the government on a clock. It would have no more than 75 days to schedule a disability claims hearing and, then, no more than 15 days to rule.

As Castor demonstrated with some of the people she gathered for a news conference on Monday, the delays and rejections are often indefensible. Shelly Burke, who suffers from diabetic neuropathy, has been unable to work since 2000. She was twice the denied the benefits she deserved, and won them only with the help of an attorney and only after eight years of delays.

“I don’t know what I would have done without my mother,” Burke said. “I’ve been one of the lucky ones.’

In fairness to the Social Security agency, its staff has suffered cutbacks at the same time it has seen a dramatic increase in caseload. It also faces far too many attempts to defraud the government, including recently disclosed attempts by private insurers to force their injured claimants to file, wrongfully, for Social Security disability insurance.

That said, the agency still suffers some of the institutional distrust that once led the Regional Appeals Office to report that bosses were telling caseworkers to “deny, deny, deny.” The agency has rebounded from those ugly purges during the Reagan administration, but one reason for the staggering backlog of cases today is that far too many claims are being wrongly denied by the original caseworker. In turn, those denials are appealed, and two-thirds of them are reversed.

The assumption that everyone is trying to cheat the system has cost those who aren’t. The average wait for a person filing a disability claim to get a hearing before an administrative judge in Tampa is now 685 days, and some cases last for years. Even Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue has acknowledged that some disabled people have died while waiting. Yet Astrue has still done little to address the problem. Imagine the Federal Emergency Management Agency trying to prevent flood insurance payments for nearly two years after a storm.

More administrative judges and caseworkers will cost money that Congress has to be willing to provide, but Castor is shining the light in the right place. These delays are inhumane.

Answering these broad-based questions isn’t easy. Help is a phone call away. You can contact Nancy Cavey, an experienced long-term disability attorney at 727-894-3188.

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