Administrative Law

Big Disability Backlogs Can Mean Financial Ruin, Despondency

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As the backlog of Social Security disability cases grows, more people are waiting longer for decisions on their appeals—up to three years, in many cases.

In the meantime, some lose their homes, declare bankruptcy or even die while waiting for the outcome, the New York Times reports.

The average wait for an appeals hearing is now 500 days, up from 258 days in 2000, the newspaper says. The agency currently has 1,025 working judges and has plans to add at least 150 more, but it can’t do so because President Bush vetoed a health, education and labor bill passed in November. In the meantime, the agency will probably operate with the same budget as last year while Congress passes continuing resolutions to keep the money flowing.

Without the new judges, federal officials say the wait time for a hearing is expected to grow even longer, the story says. About two-thirds of the roughly 2.5 million disability applicants are initially rejected by state agencies. More than 575,000 file appeals, and about two-thirds win.

Lawyer Charles Hall of Raleigh, N.C., whose law firm represents about 2,500 disability clients, told the Times about one client a month dies while waiting for hearing. More get evicted from their apartments or lose their homes in foreclosure, he said.

The Times chronicled the case of Mark Wild, who had severe diabetes that required frequent hospitalizations. He had to drop out of culinary school because he had to go to the hospital so often and had lost jobs as a waiter and cook. His initial disability application was rejected in 2003.

Wild’s parents got a call from his lawyer in October 2006, who said the disability was approved. It was too late. His parents learned two hours later that Mark Wild was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“No one can say for sure, but we’re convinced that his despondency and fear about the disability decision contributed to his death,” said his mother, Vicki Wild.

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