Social Security waiting list keeps growing

Marketplace Staff Feb 2, 2007

TESS VIGELAND:
Most of us think Social Security is for seniors. But back in the 1950s, congress decided the program should also cover disabilities. Today, that system is bogged down in bureaucratic muck. More than 700,000 people are waiting to find out if they qualify for disability benefits, and they’ve waited as long as three years. They can’t work, so some are forced to sell their homes and cash in their retirement funds. Nancy Marshall Genzer joins us now to shed a little light into this dark corner of the Social Security bureaucracy. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY MARSHALL GENZER:
Hi, Tess.

VIGELAND:
What are Social Security recipients facing?

MARSHALL GENZER:
It’s pretty grim. I talked to one guy, his name is Donald Woolard(ph), from Richmond, Virginia. Now, if you were to look at him, you’d say, “He looks fine,” and that’s part of the problem with these cases. If you look at these people, they look okay. But maybe they’ve got a brain tumor. Or in the case of Donald Woolard, he has diabetes, and that’s making him blind. He has what he calls bleed outs, which is massive internal bleeding in his eyes, and he can’t see. He was fired from his job as a grocery store buyer because he couldn’t see; he couldn’t see the computer. After that, he applied for Social Security disability. He was turned down. He appealed. He was turned down again. Now, the thing is 700,000 people are all waiting for a chance to get before a judge to make their case so they can say, “Okay, you look at me. I look fine, but guess what? Here’s what my doctor says. I’m blind and I can’t work.” When they get to that stage, before a judge after waiting for three years, two-thirds of them win.

VIGELAND:
Two-thirds of them win?

MARSHALL GENZER:
Two-thirds of them win their cases, and that is why people like Donald Woolard get so frustrated. We’re going to hear from him. He’s talking about how he felt when he got that first rejection letter from Social Security, which by the way, his wife had to read to him; he couldn’t read it because he’s blind.

DONALD WOOLARD: Well, I’m sitting there knowing the condition of my eyes, and it’s a progressive disease. It’s going to get worse. And at that point, hearing that, I just couldn’t believe it. I said, “All these years you’ve been putting money into this thing, and one time you really need it, you need to call on them to help you, and you get a rejection.”

VIGELAND:
So he went to the back of that line of 700,000 people waiting for those disability benefits.

MARSHALL GENZER:
That’s right. And again, part of the problem here is that there’s a shortage of judges to actually hear these cases, and there’s a shortage of personnel overall at Social Security. If you, Tess, were to call them and say, “Hey, I’ve got a brain tumor. I need to talk to somebody. I can’t work. I can’t support myself,” you’d have a hard time actually getting through to a person. And then if you sent them a letter and you said, “Hey, I want to make an appointment to go in and see you,” they wouldn’t respond for weeks. And if you said, “Okay, I’m just going to get up and go to the office and see if somebody will talk to me,” they won’t talk to you without an appointment. And you have to make an appointment over the phone or in writing.

VIGELAND:
How much of this is because of the budget crunch and well, it’s not even a budget crunch. It’s actually a lack of any budget at all.

MARSHALL GENZER:
I suppose any bureaucrat will say to you, “Hey, everything would be great if we just had more money.” But I was pretty convinced after I talked to the Social Security Commissioner, JoAnn Barnhardt. She’s actually just leaving the job after six years. But she told me at the beginning of her term she dragged a 25-foot flow chart of the Social Security appeals process before a subcommittee of congress, and she said her staff unfolded this 25-foot flow chart behind her as she testified. And she said she heard all of the air go out of the room, and members of congress gasped and said, “We’ve got to do something.” Tess, do you think they gave her any more money?

VIGELAND:
My guess is they didn’t.

MARSHALL GENZER:
You are absolutely right. Some people, now, do come to the defense of Social Security. One of them is Barbara Kennelly. Now, she’s a former congresswoman from Connecticut, democrat, and currently president of something called the National Committee To Preserve Social Security. Now, some incremental fixes are being tried. They’re trying to computerize the system so everybody’s information is all on file on a computer. But the problem is a lot of people applying for Social Security disability; they don’t have a telephone let alone a computer.

VIGELAND:
So how does Barbara Kennelly defend this program?

MARSHALL GENZER:
Well, she says these incremental fixes will help, and the system is not broken.

REP. BARBARA KENNELLY:
What I keep emphasizing is it isn’t that the program is broken, it’s just the situation is very complicated. After you get through the easy cases where you know that person is not going to work ever again or the person might die, then you get through those cases. Then you have to look at getting somebody on the roles who might stay on the roles for the rest of their life. So it’s going to take some time.

VIGELAND:
But I would venture a guess that a log of people don’t have that kind of time. I mean we heard earlier from Donald Woolard. How long does he have to get this disability payment into his bank account?

MARSHALL GENZER:
His story actually has a happy ending, but that’s because he contacted his congressman, and then his congressman went to bat for him. And shortly after my interview with him, he said his congressman had managed to get him benefits. But you know, that just gums the system up even more if everybody’s congressmen is trotting off to Social Security and saying, “Hey, help my constituent get benefits.” So Donald Woolard was lucky, but before he was able to get benefits, he had to sell pretty much all his possessions to survive.

WOOLARD: I mean you go through your savings. You go through your 401K. You have your friends and family and church trying to help you, and there’s nowhere to turn. I mean what do you do? Do you just go end up finally going bankrupt?

MARSHALL GENZER:
And you know the Social Security Administration is – really doesn’t have an answer for him. They said they need more money to fix these problems. They’re looking to the democrats who now control congress to try to help them solve the problem.

VIGELAND:
Quite a story there. Thank you so much, Nancy Marshall Genzer, joining us from Washington, D.C.

MARSHALL GENZER:
You’re welcome.

As a nonprofit news organization, our future depends on listeners like you who believe in the power of public service journalism.

Your investment in Marketplace helps us remain paywall-free and ensures everyone has access to trustworthy, unbiased news and information, regardless of their ability to pay.

Donate today — in any amount — to become a Marketplace Investor. Now more than ever, your commitment makes a difference.