Thursday, December 1, 2016

Disabled San Diegans Face Long Waits

There are millions of people whose disabilities are too arduous for them to work. The reasons for which are varied, such as mental health disorders or chronic physical ailments. If a person is unable to work, they are unable to earn an income and thus incapable of covering their living expenses. Fortunately, such people can find solace and comfort in the fact that they could qualify to receive benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA), which means that they will not lose the roof over their head or be unable to feed their family.

Under the umbrella of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs, people with disabilities who meet the criteria are eligible for state and federal assistance. While such programs can be real lifesavers for well over a million Californians, it turns out that accessing SSA benefits can be a grueling, lengthy process.

In the San Diego area, the average wait to be heard by an administrative law judge for a disability hearing is 18 months (roughly 540 days), The San Diego Union Tribune reports. That being said, you will probably not be too surprised to learn that long waits are a common theme across the country. Nearly 1.1 million Americans are waiting for a disability hearing. SSA data indicates that those who live in Buffalo, New York, can wait as long as 25 months for a disability hearing.

“That is a long time if you believe you’re disabled and not working. You don’t really have an income, you may need medical care and you may not have access to medical care,” said Marilyn Zahm, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. “I think the American public deserves better than that.” 

In the wake of the “great recession” and rapidly aging “baby boomers,” it is fair to say that more people than ever are in need of such hearings. Just last year alone, Social Security paid out $143 billion to 11 million disabled workers and their dependents.

The problem stems from huge Social Security Administration budget cuts which has led to understaffing, according to the article. Additionally, there are simply not enough administrative law judges nationwide. There are only 11 judges responsible for disability hearings in San Diego, and around 1,500 nationwide. The SSA says that that is simply not enough.

“To us 1.1 million is not just a number; it is a line of people and their families — many of whom are in desperate circumstances,” testified Social Security Deputy Commissioner Theresa Gruber to the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “For many of them, long wait times can mean catastrophic consequences, such as losing a home or making agonizing choices between other basic needs.” 

Stephanie Merritt Driscoll is an attorney in Southern California who focuses her practice as a Social Security Disability advocate.

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