Social Security has a major backlog in appeals for disability benefits

People who can’t work because of a disability are eligible for benefits from the federal government, but the Washington Post has found a huge backlog in disability appeals cases.

The wait for decisions has resulted in years of frustration for applicants who have already submitted piles of paperwork, endured additional medical exams and then have to testify in court that they are disabled enough to qualify for benefits. And, all that while, they are often forced to get by on little to no income.

The Social Security office of judges who hear appeals for disability benefits is 990,399 cases behind.

That is Washington’s backlog of backlogs — a queue of waiting Americans larger than the populations of six different states. It is bigger even than the infamous backups at Veterans Affairs, where 526,000 people are waiting in line, and the patent office, where 606,000 applications are pending.

Much of the delay is because the judges are charged with figuring out who is a fraud.

There is a common belief that many people who get disability benefits are just too lazy to work. In some cases, it’s been true, and that’s why they are vetted so meticulously.

The judge is supposed to read the applicant’s medical records and ask questions about medications, limitations and levels of pain. There are 1,445 of these Social Security judges, which means its in-house legal system is larger than the entire regular federal court system — district and appeals courts and the Supreme Court put together.

When they make a ruling, they must decide whether someone is truly unable to hold any job.

The average case takes 422 days to decide, according to the story.

Social Security officials told the Post that the backlog was also caused by an increase in applications for disability benefits because of aging baby boomers and people who lost their jobs in the recession.

The experience of fighting this backlog can feel desperate and futile to people on both sides of the judge’s bench.

“I had two claimants on my docket this past month. . . . They died. They died. Waiting for a hearing,” said Carol Pennock, a Social Security judge based in Miami. “I really wonder if what we’re doing is effective at all. If it helps at all. If, based on the amount of evidence we get, my decision is any better than flipping a coin.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org. Follow her on Twitter @HalleStockton.