TAMPA — A new Social Security hearing office planned for the Tampa Bay area will help relieve a waiting list for local benefits that has been called the worst in the state, federal officials said Friday.
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue announced during a stop in Tampa that plans are progressing to build the area's second office, where judges decide benefits for disability applicants. If Congress approves the appropriation in March, Astrue estimated the office could be open by September of next year.
Astrue, accompanied by U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, said Tampa's average processing time of 590 days was "in the top of the bottom third" of wait times across the country.
In July, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the backlog, then estimated at about three months longer, was "the worst in Florida."
"Given the severity of the disability backlog, this has been the only part of the agency that is on one-for-one replacement hiring now," Astrue said. "This office and others need particularly more support staff."
The General Services Administration will decide the location and plan construction of the office and another that would be built in Tallahassee. The new office's 10 judges would complement Tampa's current 15.
Brown-Waite, who last month was appointed to the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees Social Security and Medicare, has made retirement and disability spending a key component of her time in office.
Her district, which encompasses all or parts of eight counties — including Pasco, Hernando and Citrus — has about 250,000 Social Security beneficiaries, more than any district in the nation, including several states, according to federal statistics from 2007. Residents in her district receive $260 million in monthly benefits.
After Friday morning's visit in Tampa, Brown-Waite and Astrue toured the Social Security district office in Dade City and participated in a Social Security retirement planning computer training class at the Villages in the northern part of the 5th Congressional District.