Disability cases take too long

Deciding whether a person is eligible for Social Security disability payments is time consuming, sometimes complex, and requires no small amount of documentation.

But this nation, which, for the most part, prides itself on being compassionate, has, for the past half-decade, been guilty of an increasingly terrible disservice to individuals dealing with disabling physical and mental conditions.

As an Associated Press article in last week’s Mirror reported, it’s reached the terrible point where the average wait time for a hearing to decide a disability case is 602 days.

The article indicated that five years ago, the average wait was less than a year.

Why it has taken so long for Washington to deal with the growing problem obviously is rooted in the issue of money. Advocates contend that budget cuts over the past five years have thwarted efforts to reduce the disability backlog.

According to the article, the Social Security Administration’s $12.6 billion budget remained virtually unchanged between 2011 and last year, despite an additional 6 million people receiving either retirement or disability benefits from Social Security.

Regardless of what one thinks about Social Security now or for the future, including what needs to be done to bolster it, the government should not have allowed the decisions issue to become as serious — even tragic — as what it has become over the past five years.

The troubling, worsening issue should have been revealed — and become a serious topic of discussion and action — long before now.

People unable to work because of a disabling condition have experienced extended financial hardships and even died before their cases were scheduled to be heard.

Social Security’s inspector general has reported that last year there were 7,400 people on hearing waiting lists who already had died.

Meanwhile, the list of people waiting for hearings has grown to 1 million applicants — a number hard to fathom in terms of being able to get under control.

Social Security says it intends to add 500 additional administrative law judges to its contingent numbering 1,600, as well as 600 additional support-staff members.

However, with such tight financial constraints, it has to be wondered how long it will take to accomplish that goal, as well as how much larger the hearings waiting list will grow in the meantime.

Deciding disability cases must not become a rubber-stamp process, simply because of the extent of the workload. There’s too much of a financial stake for the nation for cases that are decided wrongly on behalf of applicants.

Because of the time, paperwork and medical involvement necessary in evaluating cases properly and justly, there should be adequate resources in place to carry out that work in a timely and efficient manner. The federal government has been derelict in regard to that responsibility.

Commendably, Social Security is expanding a program that awards benefits expeditiously to people diagnosed with serious conditions and illnesses such as certain cancers. However, that doesn’t alleviate the responsibility to bring the hearing-wait-time issue within a reasonable, dependable parameter.

Now that the issue is front and center, ignoring it is not an acceptable option.