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Vacant judgeship adds to wait for aid

The tens of thousands of people stuck in the national backlog for Social Security disability benefits might disagree, but the agency's top official argues progress is being made in ending the crisis.

The progress is hard to see in the Tampa Bay area, however, where the caseload is among the highest in the nation and an office sits empty awaiting the hiring of a much-needed judge.

The most recent figures indicate that 761,042 people are waiting across the country for hearings to address their claims. In the Tampa hearing office, the number is 14,524, the highest in the state.

The situation prompted Rep. Kathy Castor, a Tampa democrat, to propose legislation this week to break the backlog. Castor's bill would require that a hearing be held between 60 and 75 days from the date it is requested, and that a final verdict be given no more than 15 days after the hearing.

Social Security officials in Baltimore could not answer questions Tuesday, but in April, Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told Congress the agency has made "slow and frustrating progress in fixing our service delivery problems."

One step taken was the hiring of additional administrative law judges and support staff members to handle the hearings. In the Tampa office, though, that has yet to pay dividends.

Funds were appropriated in December to allow the office to increase its number of judges from 16 to 17, but the new judge's office remains empty.

"They started the hiring process in late April or early May. I don't know why it (has taken) so long," Castor said. "A judge was hired … the office is ready. For some reason, the person that was hired refused the posting. So now they're not going to start the next round of hiring until the beginning of October.

"The Tampa caseload is just out of control. We are going to need additional judges, and we're going to need other districts to take some of the national backlog."

"Hiring new judges is a step in the right direction, but you still have to hire the staff in order to help them," said Robert Gutierrez, a South Florida lawyer who has been representing disability clients for 16 years.

During his testimony, Astrue told Congress that the agency has begun using a fast-track system to decide allowances in an average of six to eight days. But thus far, only a small number of new claims were being processed this way, he said.

Video conferencing is being introduced to help break apart the worst logjams, he said, and the agency is going to begin a pilot program called "compassionate allowances."

"These are cases where the disease or condition is so consistently devastating that we can presume that the claimant is disabled once we confirm a valid diagnosis," he said.

Linda Fullerton, co-founder of a national grass roots organization called the Social Security Disability Coalition, is not impressed.

Fullerton, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., said she waited for a year and a half to get her benefits. When the wait devastated her finances, she got angry enough to start a cyberspace group that now numbers 3,000 members, she said.

"There is blood and destruction on the hands of both the Social Security Administration and Congress," she said in an e-mail to the Times. "Both have been systematically killing and devastating the lives of the most vulnerable citizens of this nation for decades."

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2283.

Vacant judgeship adds to wait for aid 07/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, July 17, 2008 7:51am]
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