By Thomas R. Wolfrum
Bradenton Herold, April 11, 2010
Thomas Presha thinks he could afford chiropractic care for his searing back pain if a judge would hear his plea for Social Security Disability Insurance.
The 55-year-old former construction worker said he has been unemployed for almost three years, barely able to get out of bed, much less hold down a job.
But because of a backlog of cases before the Social Security Administration’s administrative law judges, Presha has been waiting more than two years for his case to be heard.
He’s still waiting.
And losing hope.
“I’m in excruciating pain all the time,” said Presha, who lives in Sarasota. “I actually wake up every morning crying from what kind of pain I’m in. I spend the day whining and crying in bed.”
Presha’s case is extreme, even for Florida, which ranks 16th worst in Social Security Disability Insurance hearing backlogs in an analysis released this past week by Allsup, a company that helps applicants get benefits. The average wait time in Florida is 470 days, or almost 16 months, according to the study. That is down from an average wait time of 557 days in September 2008.
States in the Upper Midwest fared the worst in the Allsup study. Ohio is saddled with the largest backlog of cases with an average wait of 590 days, followed by Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Indiana.
Delaware had the shortest backlog. Applicants wait an average of 299 days for a hearing there.
“There’s a huge disparity between the states,” said Dan Allsup, director of communications at Allsup. “Where I live should not determine how long I have to wait to get the benefits I paid for.”
The Social Security Disability Insurance program offers financial support to people who can no longer work because of a disability expected to last at least a year or result in death. Recipients must be younger than 65, making them ineligible for regular Social Security retirement checks.
The hearing level is the third step in an applicant’s process of receiving disability benefits. By the time they get in front of a judge, applicants have already had an initial submission and preliminary appeal denied.
Presha said his submissions have been denied even though SSA’s own doctors concede that he can no longer do construction work.
He thinks he injured his back in 2007 while working at Building Restoration, a Sarasota construction firm. But he continued working with the pain and couldn’t prove the injury occurred on the job.
After a layoff, Presha tried to return to work, but the pain was too intense. Doctors later found two herniated discs and diagnosed Presha with spinal stenosis.
Presha and his wife of five years were surviving on her income until she got laid off recently from her job with United Cerebral Palsy. Now their only income is her unemployment benefits. It’s barely enough to pay the lot rent on the trailer they own.
“It’s been going on three years now,” Presha said of his quest for benefits. “I’m not confident in the system at all.”
Meanwhile, the number of applications for disability insurance is expected to rise, thanks to an aging baby boomer population — Dan Allsup called it the “silver tsunami” — and high unemployment rates. The SSA expects 3.3 million people to apply for disability benefits this year, up from 2.7 million in 2009.
The Tampa hearing office, which serves applicants in Manatee and Sarasota counties, has the largest backlog of the five Florida offices. There were 10,002 people waiting an average of 496 days for a hearing in Tampa.
Bradenton attorney Terri F. Cromley, who represents Presha, said technological advances at the Tampa office have begun to streamline the process. Case files are available on compact disc, and SSA hopes to put most case information online for attorneys to access in the near future, she said.
“It sounds bad,” Cromley said of Florida’s ranking, “but actually they have improved over the past year. Because of that CD and the fact we can scan things to give them cuts down on their workload.”
Cromley said her clients wait an average of 16 months for a hearing, compared to 24 months a few years ago.
Still, she says, it’s too long to wait when you’re not working.
“It’s a horrible process,” Cromley said. “Many of my clients became homeless. If they don’t have a spouse or parents who can support them, they’re out of work for three years.
“They ask me, ‘Can’t you just file on a hardship?’ But most people are on a hardship. They only consider it a hardship in an emergency situation.”
U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, has sponsored legislation seeking to limit the time applicants must wait before being granted a hearing before an administrative law judge. The bill stipulates the Social Security Administration must schedule a hearing within five business days after receiving a request, the hearing must occur between 60 and 75 days after the request is received, and the final decision must occur within 15 business days after the hearing.
The bill, co-sponsored by 93 other House members, has been sent to the House Ways and Means Committee.
“These are families in our community that need their cases heard,” said Castor, whose district includes a small portion of northern Manatee County. “That’s what we pay FICA on our paychecks for.”
Castor agreed that the Social Security Administration has made progress since she first proposed the bill in July 2008. In Florida, four new judges, including one in the Tampa office, and 90 staff members have been hired.
The federal government plans to open two new hearing offices in Florida this year, one in St. Petersburg and another in Tallahassee. The St. Petersburg office is scheduled to open in June or July, according to Patti Patterson, the SSA’s regional communications director in Atlanta.
“They’re making some progress, but they have a long way to go. Unless we keep the pressure on them, I’m afraid the backlog will continue,” Castor said.
Castor said she will be watching closely Wednesday as SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue testifies before the House’s subcommittee on labor, health and human services and related agencies. She hopes Astrue will recognize the need to bulk up the agency’s efforts to diminish the backlog.
Last month, Astrue touted the agency’s efforts by saying the 697,437 pending cases are the lowest since June 2005 and down more than 71,000 from December 2008.
Astrue said the SSA hired 147 more administrative law judges and more than 1,000 support staff members since 2008. There are now four National Hearing Centers to process hearings by video conference for areas with the biggest backlogs.
“We have decreased the number of hearings pending by almost 10 percent over the past 14 months and cut the time it takes to make a decision by nearly two and a half months. This remarkable progress shows our backlog reduction plan is working,” Astrue said in a press release.
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