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Disability cases to be sent to Seattle

The federal government on Monday promised to expedite disability hearings for injured workers in the Charlotte area who endure delays among the longest in the nation.

Many suffer with no income, lose their homes or die while waiting to hear whether they will receive Social Security disability benefits.

U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican, said at a news conference the government would transfer 300 cases from Charlotte's Disability Adjudication and Hearing Office to Seattle. Judges at that office, which has a smaller backlog, will conduct hearings of N.C. workers by video teleconferencing.

Charlotte's office had about 8,700 pending cases last year.

The move comes nearly a year after a series of Observer reports highlighted extraordinary wait times at Charlotte's hearing office. In one case, a Gastonia man killed himself by jumping off a highway overpass. His family said he could not afford medicine to treat his mental illness while he awaited a hearing.

Officials said the latest push is an expansion of ongoing efforts to take advantage of technology and to transfer cases to faster offices. If the program succeeds, it may be extended.

“People have been talking about this, but it's good to see some action,” said Logan Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, mid-Atlantic chapter. “People have their entire lives stripped away.”

Long process

Taxes are deducted from nearly all American workers' paychecks in case they become too ill to work.

Applicants must produce a raft of documents on their work and medical histories to get benefits. That's when the wait begins.

After months of processing, most initial claims are rejected. Many appeal, but their applications are usually rejected again.

Those who press on request a hearing with an administrative law judge.

In Charlotte, they must wait an average of 705 days for a hearing, the 13th longest among 143 hearing offices, according to Allsup Inc., an Illinois company that tracks the issue.

The wait nationally averages 508 days.

Critics say the delays are unfair because in most cases judges rule in favor of the applicant. Recipients collect an average of about $1,000 a month.

Stewart, of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said many of her group's clients use the money for basics like food and medicine. In some cases, she said, medication can cost $50,000 a year.

Federal officials blame the long waits nationwide on staffing shortages and a surge in cases. Areas where manufacturing jobs are prevalent, such as North Carolina, often have long backlogs.

‘Encouraging' plan

The Charlotte office covers a wide geographic area, stretching from Asheville to Lumberton.

Each of the nine judges has more than 700 pending cases on average.

The new plan represents an expansion of two ideas officials have deployed in the past.

In recent years, they have conducted more hearings by video teleconference. From fiscal year 2006 to summer 2007, the government transferred more than 1,100 cases from Charlotte to other hearing offices across the country.

Officials said Monday's announcement could represent a permanent solution. Nancy Griswold, a Social Security Administration deputy chief administrative law judge, also said working with an office on the west coast essentially extends Charlotte's operating hours. There is a three-hour time difference between Seattle and Charlotte.

After the Observer investigation, Myrick pressed the Social Security Administration for reforms. One of the most common complaints lawmakers receive is about wait times for hearings. Myrick called the new plan “very encouraging.”

The change will come too late for Tommy Yarborough, who waited two years until he had his hearing Monday. Yarborough has been diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, a nervous system disorder that causes pain and muscle weakness.

Yarborough said he presented his case to a Charlotte disability judge and will wait for a ruling.

Yarborough first applied for disability in 2005, but was turned down and later became homeless.

“I've gone through all the emotions,” he said. “It reaches a point where you can't dwell on it, or that will make you sick.”

The federal government on Monday promised to expedite disability hearings for injured workers in the Charlotte area who endure delays among the longest in the nation.

Many suffer with no income, lose their homes or die while waiting to hear whether they will receive Social Security disability benefits.

U.S. Rep. Sue Myrick, a Republican, said at a news conference the government would transfer 300 cases from Charlotte's Disability Adjudication and Hearing Office to Seattle. Judges at that office, which has a smaller backlog, will conduct hearings of N.C. workers by video teleconferencing.

Charlotte's office had about 8,700 pending cases last year.

The move comes nearly a year after a series of Observer reports highlighted extraordinary wait times at Charlotte's hearing office. In one case, a Gastonia man killed himself by jumping off a highway overpass. His family said he could not afford medicine to treat his mental illness while he awaited a hearing.

Officials said the latest push is an expansion of ongoing efforts to take advantage of technology and to transfer cases to faster offices. If the program succeeds, it may be extended.

“People have been talking about this, but it's good to see some action,” said Logan Stewart, a spokeswoman for the Multiple Sclerosis Society, mid-Atlantic chapter. “People have their entire lives stripped away.”

Long process

Taxes are deducted from nearly all American workers' paychecks in case they become too ill to work.

Applicants must produce a raft of documents on their work and medical histories to get benefits. That's when the wait begins.

After months of processing, most initial claims are rejected. Many appeal, but their applications are usually rejected again.

Those who press on request a hearing with an administrative law judge.

In Charlotte, they must wait an average of 705 days for a hearing, the 13th longest among 143 hearing offices, according to Allsup Inc., an Illinois company that tracks the issue.

The wait nationally averages 508 days.

Critics say the delays are unfair because in most cases judges rule in favor of the applicant. Recipients collect an average of about $1,000 a month.

Stewart, of the Multiple Sclerosis Society, said many of her group's clients use the money for basics like food and medicine. In some cases, she said, medication can cost $50,000 a year.

Federal officials blame the long waits nationwide on staffing shortages and a surge in cases. Areas where manufacturing jobs are prevalent, such as North Carolina, often have long backlogs.

‘Encouraging' plan

The Charlotte office covers a wide geographic area, stretching from Asheville to Lumberton.

Each of the nine judges has more than 700 pending cases on average.

The new plan represents an expansion of two ideas officials have deployed in the past.

In recent years, they have conducted more hearings by video teleconference. From fiscal year 2006 to summer 2007, the government transferred more than 1,100 cases from Charlotte to other hearing offices across the country.

Officials said Monday's announcement could represent a permanent solution. Nancy Griswold, a Social Security Administration deputy chief administrative law judge, also said working with an office on the west coast essentially extends Charlotte's operating hours. There is a three-hour time difference between Seattle and Charlotte.

After the Observer investigation, Myrick pressed the Social Security Administration for reforms. One of the most common complaints lawmakers receive is about wait times for hearings. Myrick called the new plan “very encouraging.”

The change will come too late for Tommy Yarborough, who waited two years until he had his hearing Monday. Yarborough has been diagnosed with neurosarcoidosis, a nervous system disorder that causes pain and muscle weakness.

Yarborough said he presented his case to a Charlotte disability judge and will wait for a ruling.

Yarborough first applied for disability in 2005, but was turned down and later became homeless.

“I've gone through all the emotions,” he said. “It reaches a point where you can't dwell on it, or that will make you sick.”

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