Little help for disability backlog

The federal government admits sick workers in the Charlotte area wait longer for help than almost anyone else in the nation.

But when officials hired nearly 200 new administrative law judges this year to expedite disability hearings, only one was assigned to Charlotte's Disability Adjudication and Hearing Office.

Instead, the Social Security Administration sent three or more judges to places like Huntington, W.Va.; Portland, Maine; and New Orleans, where waits are among the shortest nationwide.

In addition to assigning a new judge, administrators also recently transferred a judge to the Charlotte office, raising the number to 11 from nine.

“How can you give (Charlotte) only one judge?” asked Dan Allsup, spokesman for Allsup Inc., which represents disability applicants in North Carolina and other states.

The government recently announced it would reduce delays by transferring 300 cases from the Charlotte office to Seattle. Officials would conduct hearings for N.C. workers by video teleconferencing.

The reforms come almost a year after a series of Observer reports exposed that many suffer for years with no income, become homeless or even die while waiting years to hear whether they will receive Social Security Disability benefits. In one instance, a Gastonia man killed himself by leaping from a highway overpass. Relatives said he could not afford medicine to treat his mental illness while he waited for a hearing.

Federal officials say the changes will speed the process for nearly 9,000 people in the Charlotte area awaiting disability hearings.

But some question how the government assigned new judges and predict the moves will do little to fix the system.

“It's like putting a Band-Aid on someone who is bleeding to death,” Allsup said.

More cases, fewer case workers

The government deducts taxes from nearly all workers' paychecks in case they become too sick to work.

Disability applicants must then present a slew of documents about their work and medical histories to get benefits. Then they wait months for the answer.

Most claims are initially rejected. Large numbers appeal, but the majority are denied again.

Those who persist can request a hearing before an administrative law judge.

However, applicants in the Charlotte area must wait on average 643 days for a hearing, according to the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives. The wait nationally is about 508 days.

Social Security Administration officials say a burgeoning caseload combined with budget and staff shortages are the culprits. The number of Americans collecting Social Security disability has jumped to 7.1 million in 2005 from 3 million in 1990. During roughly the same period, the number of federal employees handling cases declined, officials have said.

Social Security Administration officials didn't directly explain why they put only one new judge in Charlotte.

“The new ALJs were assigned on the basis of the national workload needs assessment,” a Social Security Administration official said in an e-mail response to the Observer.

John Roberts of Bessemer City has waited since 2005 to learn whether he qualifies for benefits.

Three doctors have said severe pain from fibromyalgia, arthritis and back surgery make it impossible for him to work, but he has been turned down twice for benefits.

The former vice president of a small medical equipment warehousing business, he now depends on his wife, Cass, for survival. She has worked two jobs at times to pay the bills despite suffering from Graves disease, said Roberts, 61, who lives in Bessemer City.

He said he and Cass have struggled to pay their mortgage and other bills, including $120 a month for medicine.

“It broke my heart to see her go without things that she needs,” Roberts said. “If it weren't for her, I'd be on the streets.”