Florida's backlog of Social Security disability cases is poised to get even longer as unemployed workers flock to the program.
In the throes of a sagging economy, more people — many who have lost their jobs during the recession — are saying they are disabled and need to tap into the insurance program.
In 2007, 149,044 initial disability claims were filed in Florida, according to the Social Security Administration. By 2009, that number jumped nearly 33 percent to 197,960 claims.
The total number of people getting Social Security disability insurance has increased as well. In 2007, there were 418,498 beneficiaries in the state. In 2009, there were 458,526, an increase of about 9.5 percent.
Applications filed in the Tampa Bay area increased about 32 percent from 2007 to 2009.
"We're going to be watching it very closely," said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, who has worked on the issue. "What concerns me is the existing backlog. We can't lose ground, even in the tough economic times."
Florida is leading a nationwide trend. Social Security disability benefit claims have spiked dramatically nationwide in the past few years, with applications soaring 21 percent to 2.8 million from 2008 to 2009, according to the Washington Post.
The growth is the sharpest in the 54-year history of the program. About 8 million workers were receiving disability benefits in June, an increase of 12.6 percent since the recession began in 2007, according to the Social Security Administration.
Local experts say the reason for the uptick is simple: an aging population combined with a tanking economy.
"You have a double whammy," said Michael Steinberg, a Tampa lawyer who is running for the District 47 state House seat as a Democrat.
Steinberg has handled disability claims for nearly 30 years. He said many of his new clients are baby boomers in their 50s and 60s who can't persuade employers to work with their ailments.
"It's usually the last resort," he said. "It's depressing to admit that you are no longer useful in the work force, especially when you're not even close to retirement age."
Most of the people filing claims these days have ailments associated with age, including arthritis, back problems and diabetes, local lawyers say. When times were good, they could work around their limitations; or they had been at their jobs so long that their employers made special accommodations.
But when the economy soured, many of these workers were the first to be let go. They haven't been able to find work since and Social Security benefits have become a lifeline.
"It puts people in a position where if they've lost a job they're now competing with 100 percent healthy people," said Colleen Russo, a St. Petersburg lawyer who has handled Social Security claims since 1984.
For one of her clients, Cynthia Cohen Metcalf of Largo, the fight for disability benefits took three years.
Cohen Metcalf, 56, a former X-ray technician, injured her back and suffered nerve damage in 2005 while catching a falling patient.
She tried to tough it out for a while, but by 2007 things hadn't gotten better. Physical therapy wasn't working, and no one would hire her with her medical problems. So she applied for disability and was denied twice. She was finally approved in June.
"I did everything I could," said Cohen Metcalf, who has limited mobility and faces a third back surgery. "I thought I would get better. I did without. At 56, I can't believe this. My life is focused around my pain."
Cohen Metcalf said she has many friends in the same situation. She said as employers started cutting back and requiring more of the remaining workers, those with disabilities either couldn't stick it out or were let go.
"It's forcing these people who used to tough it out to go ahead and file," Cohen Metcalf said. "It's sad."
Social Security disability payments average $1,100 a month, with benefits for spouses and children averaging $300 a month more. In addition, people on the disability rolls receive health insurance through Medicare when they have been on the program for two years.
About half of all applicants eventually make it onto the disability rolls — a percentage that has not changed appreciably with the recent spike in applications, Social Security officials say. The average age of new recipients is 49, and less than 1 percent return to work, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Officials acknowledge the souring economy may have pushed some unqualified applicants to try to get disability benefits out of desperation. If people are doing that, experts say, they will quickly realize disability benefits aren't a quick fix.
It can take years for a person to be qualified. About two-thirds of people are initially denied, according to Dan Allsup, the communications director for Allsup Inc., a company representing people trying to get benefits.
The Tampa Bay area has had one of the nation's worst backlogs. The national average waiting time to get benefits is 410 days after a person already has been denied twice, Allsup said, and it usually takes at least a year for a person to get to those first denials, he said.
The wait time in Tampa, he said, is 416 days. In St. Petersburg, the wait is 291 days.
In 2008, the Social Security Administration announced it was going to add administrative judges and send some local cases to other offices. A few months ago, an office opened in downtown St. Petersburg, which has lightened the load for the Tampa office.
"Social Security has made some real strides in cutting the backlog, but it's appalling that 416 days is an improvement," Allsup said. "Things are getting better, but it's still terrible."
The bulging rolls of the disability program are not expected to ease any time soon, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It projects the number of people receiving the benefits will reach 11.4 million by 2015.
The crush of new enrollees is placing an unsustainable financial burden on the Disability Insurance Trust Fund. Currently, the program costs $124 billion a year. Absent changes, the fund, which is financed mostly by a 1.8 percent payroll tax, will be exhausted by 2018.
Regardless of the existing backlog and new claims, experts say they are confident the system will weed out those who are trying to fraudulently get benefits.
Applicants must show a documented work history and meet a strict definition of disabled. Lawyers and companies like Allsup said they strictly screen clients.
"If a person is able to work, regardless if they cannot find work, then they should not get benefits," Allsup said.
Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Kameel Stanley can be reached at (727) 893-8643 or firstname.lastname@example.org.