SSI backlog: Thousands around Philly waiting more than two years for disability hearing

Using a cane to balance her steps, Adrianne Gunter made her way to a small courtroom on the 21st floor of a Center City building where a judge awaited via video screen.

Gunter had been waiting 788 days for this hearing Dec. 13. The 33-year-old West Philadelphia native and University of the Arts graduate was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2015, derailing her dreams of using her degree in television and film writing to work in the entertainment industry. Gunter, who lives with her mother, is seeking Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — federal aid for those who are poor and disabled, blind or elderly.

“I don’t like it that my mother has to take care of me. I want to help her,” Gunter said in an interview.

Across the country, more than one million people are waiting — sometimes for more than two years — for an appeal hearing to determine whether they qualify for these disability benefits. The majority of initial applications are denied. The Social Security Administration called its backlog of pending appeals a “public service crisis.”

In Philadelphia, more than 10,000 people are caught in the backlog. Similar numbers are waiting in South Jersey and the Philadelphia suburbs.

SSI pays 8.1 million people nationwide an average of $526 a month, often used for rent, groceries, and other basic necessities. Like Gunter, most also rely on Medicaid for health care.

The Social Security Administration says it does not have enough administrative law judges and support staff to handle a backlog that started more than a decade ago and was exacerbated during the recession. Hiring freezes made it hard to catch up.

A Long Wait for Benefits

The average wait time to receive a hearing for Social Security disability benefits in the Philadelphia office is currently 26 months, the longest in the nation. After the hearing, it takes more months to get a decision. The government’s target wait time from request to decision is nine months.

As of November, the Philadelphia Office of Disability Adjudication and Review had the longest average wait time in the country: 26 months from the time a person requests a hearing until the hearing itself, according to SSA figures. The South Jersey office had a 23-month average wait, and the suburban office in Elkins Park had an average wait time of 20 months. Even after a hearing, it takes months to get a decision.

SSA’s target is an appeal decision within 270 days, about nine months, of requesting a hearing. The national average is 591 days.

Meanwhile, applicants are dying. The Social Security Administration reported that 8,699 people died nationwide in 2016 awaiting a decision on benefits.

“The stress of having no money in addition to health issues can cause a decline in health — sometimes that stress can be fatal,” said Stacy Cloyd, deputy director of government affairs at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives (NOSSCR), which represents SSI applicants across the country.

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