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Disability claimants wait ... and wait

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KAI RYSSDAL: Here's today's Marketplace trivia question. The first one to get it right -- as judged by the time stamp on the e-mail -- gets my voice on their home answering machine. What's the official name of Social Security?

I'll take a beat here while you think. If you need a hint, the acronym is OASDI -- old age, survivors and disability insurance.

Most of us know about the old age and survivors benefits. But there are about 7 million Americans who collect disability benefits from the Social Security Administration every month. Every year, another 2.5 million people apply.

Which brings us to the problem. There's a backlog of 750,000 people trying to prove they deserve those disability payments. Later this month Congress is going to weigh in on what to do about it.

Marketplace's Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports.


MARSHALL GENZER: When the Social Security disability program started, in the 1950s, it was aimed at blue collar workers with obvious injuries. Government newsreels described it this way.

NEWSREEL: Today, a new car comes off the assembly line every 48 seconds. These are the men and women who have Social Security protection, in case sickness or accident causes a disability that is so severe that earning a living is no longer possible.

Today, a lot of people with hard-to-prove illnesses apply for disability benefits. They have Lupus or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Social Security sees them as borderline cases. So, they're often denied.

But once applicants get a chance to appeal to a judge, two thirds of them win. If they lose, they can appeal again. That swells the backlog even more.

Judge Robert Habermann hears disability cases in Roanoke, Va., and is an officer in the judge's union. He says the Social Security Administration is pressuring judges to just ram through positive decisions.

ROBERT HABERMANN: It solves a lot of problems by just paying the case. The individual claimant is out of the system. In other words, there are no appeals.

Haberman says those positive decisions could stack up to billions of dollars in wasted taxpayer money.

MICHAEL ASTRUE: Well I've heard that as a union line, but that's just not true.

That's Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue. Astrue says he can't, and doesn't tell judges how to decide cases. He says the problem is a shortage of judges and very uneven productivity. The Social Security Administration now encourages each of its nearly 1,200 judges to hear 500 to 700 cases per year.

MICHAEL ASTRUE: We've had judges who decided no cases in a year. And we've had judges that have fairly chronically decided double digits -- 40 cases a year.

All told, the judges hear more than a half a million cases per year. But that's not enough to get through the backlog. Astrue wants to up the number of judges and their productivity to eliminate the backlog in about five years.

And Astrue says judges aren't just ramming through positive decisions, either. Forty-six-year-old Karen Ierardi can attest to that. At her hearing this year, a judge denied her disability benefits.

KAREN IERARDI: I just felt that he didn't understand it, what I'd been through. And I don't think he had a lot of knowledge of the disease itself that I had been going through.

Ierardi has rheumatoid arthritis and so she was a borderline case. She had to quit her job as a substitute teacher in a suburb of Richmond, Va. Now she lives with her mother in a cramped apartment.

Ierardi and her mother have racked up thousands of dollars in credit card debt paying for groceries and gas. Ierardi still can't work. She's appealing her denial once again.

So what's the answer? People with difficult cases like Ierardi's want a fair hearing. Judges shouldn't take too long or feel rushed.

Commissioner Astrue has begun hiring more judges. The first group started this month. He's asking Congress for millions of dollars to hire a second batch of judges. But it's an election year. So it's not likely Congress will act anytime soon.

Social Security claimants stuck in the backlog, will just have to wait. And wait. And wait.

In Washington, I'm Nancy Marshall Genzer for Marketplace.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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