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By Regina Walker

The Social Security Administration continues to lag on processing applications for Social Security Disability in Western New York, and throughout the country.

In Buffalo, it takes approximately 407 days after denial of the initial application – 80 percent of claims are denied at initial application – for a case to go through the appeals process to a final decision. In Rochester, typically 427 days elapse before a final ruling. Last year, 3.1 million workers filed claims for SSD, and only 33 percent were awarded benefits. Most claimants must take their case to an administrative law judge, and last year only 33 percent of claims reached that level.

Statistics are just numbers to most people. But those of us who work with clients trying to obtain SSD benefits see the human toll every day. Savings dry up, mortgages and health insurance premiums go unpaid, and cars get repossessed – all because the individual, already stressed by his or her disability, must survive for 14 to 24 months without income. We have had clients who slept on a friend’s living room couch for two years, waiting for their case to be decided.

Critics blame the backlog on increased applications due to laid-off workers turning to SSD when unemployment benefits run out. A new study done by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, however, found this is not the case. The study states “the primary reasons for the increase in the rolls have been the baby boomers reaching peak disability years and the increased number of women in the workforce.” In fact, each year since 2010 new applications dropped.

Processing is slow because the Social Security Administration is underfunded and understaffed. In September 2012, the agency planned to hire 125 new administrative law judges, however, only 46 were hired due to complications in the hiring process.

The National Academy of Social Insurance recently did a survey asking what Americans want for the future of Social Security. This study found 74 percent of Republicans and 88 percent of Democrats believe Social Security should be preserved, plus, they are willing to pay higher taxes to do so.

As long as the budget is held hostage by sequestration, there won’t be any changes in funding for the Social Security Administration. When Congress gets back to doing its job, part of that job should be finding solutions to funding Social Security and increasing staffing so the agency can do its job more efficiently. Until then, attorneys who handle SSD cases will see clients forced to rely on the generosity of friends and hoping those friends have comfortable couches.

Regina Walker is an attorney with Jeffrey Freedman Attorneys PLLC, which handles Social Security Disability claims.