Editorial: Shorten waits for disability benefits

Published Dec. 28, 2017

Workers whose poor health forces them from the job market should not have to wait years to obtain the benefits they deserve. The system has forced 1 million people onto a backlog for federal disability insurance, with wait times for hearings reaching a national average of nearly 600 days — and even longer in Florida. There is no reason to increase the hardship for those already living on the edge. Congress needs to provide the money necessary to deliver these benefits in a timely manner.

The Tampa Bay Times' Malena Carollo chronicled the human impact of the logjam earlier this month, following the ordeal of 48-year-old Teralyn Fleming, one of about 21,000 off-the-job workers in Tampa Bay seeking a hearing to get Social Security disability insurance. Pushed out of her job as a paralegal in 2015 because of a blood-clotting disorder, Fleming struggled with medical expenses, was threatened with eviction and considering filing bankruptcy. She had waited more than two years to plead her case for disability insurance, but a day before her November hearing, Fleming discovered that a side job, which paid $1,000 a month, pushed her over the qualifying limit for benefits. Rather than risk having her case denied, Fleming followed her lawyer's advice to withdraw her case and start the application process all over.

Her story is hardly unusual. For many, the wait times can be especially harsh, as applicants cannot earn more than what they would receive in benefits. That means many don't work for years even if they are capable of some type of work. Applicants are forced to sell their assets to meet normal, everyday expenses. Many move in with friends or family and spend their savings on necessities. And they do it for a benefit with a national average of $1,173 per month. Medicare coverage is also available after a two-year waiting period. This is not a generous benefit, yet for many it is hopelessly out of reach.

Social Security disability insurance is a government program that provides benefits to those whose health problems make it impossible to work. It is aimed at providing some modest level of income to those with chronic illnesses when they can no longer support themselves. But the application process is confusing and time-consuming; getting a case before a judge now takes an average of 593 days nationally; in Florida, the average wait time is 619 days, with the longest in Miami (725 days) and Tampa (705 days). In the past few months, the backlog in Tampa has become the nation's second-highest, with 12,304 cases pending in October. Florida offices account for four of the five biggest backlogs in the country.

Congress and the Trump administration need to provide the program with more money and stronger leadership. The Social Security Administration's fiscal 2016 budget of $12.4 billion was slightly less than its budget in 2011. The program needs more administrative judges to handle the backlog in cases, and more money for support staff to speed the decisionmaking process. A better trained workforce could reduce the number of applicants who seek relief through full-fledged judicial hearings. Judges should make better use of online and videoconferencing resources to address the backlog in cases in congested jurisdictions across the country.

Those seeking these benefits are by definition in poor health and with few options for getting by on their own. The system for helping them should be efficient and predictable, not add to their financial or emotional burden.