A question. Well, two.
Who dreamed up the cockeyed system the federal government used that sent three or more new administrative law judges to places like Huntington, W.Va., where sick and disabled workers have the shortest waits for help, but gave Charlotte – whose wait times top almost any place in the nation – only one? And where were our members of Congress when that loony allotment system was set up?
An Observer investigation last fall found that waits at the local office where federal disability claims are heard rank among the longest nationwide, 125 out of 141 offices. The federal government admits all that is true. Yet when officials hired nearly 200 new judges to expedite hearings, only one was assigned (another was transferred) to Charlotte's Disability Adjudication and Hearing Office. More judges went to places with the shortest waits.
The government says help will come from transferring some cases from the Charlotte office to Seattle, with hearings conducted by teleconferencing. Still, the math seems nonsensical, so an obvious conclusion is that politics played a role. Some communities, it seems, have lawmakers with more pull or determination to get more help for their constituents.
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Whatever the reason, the Charlotte area got the short end of the stick, and N.C. members of Congress should make sure it doesn't happen next year. If the 643 days – on average – North Carolinians wait to get a disability claim hearing doesn't get their attention, here are stories that should.
A Gastonia man waited so long for a hearing to get help to treat his mental illness that he became distraught and killed himself by leaping from a highway overpass. The Observer's probe showed the fight for benefits drags on so long many people suffer for years with little or no income. Some become homeless and even die waiting for a hearing.
The irony is that these benefits are paid from taxes deducted from paychecks of nearly all of us in case we become sick or disabled. Yet the system is designed to discourage those in need from seeking the benefits. Applicants must submit a myriad of documents about their work and medical histories. Then they wait for months for an answer only to be rejected. Most claims are rejected, and more than once.
With disability claims up and the number of federal employees handling cases down, the situation keeps getting worse. This eye-brow raising move is a Band-Aid that won't help. The sick and hurt in this region deserve better. Our policy makers in Washington failed when they didn't make sure they got it.