Why Does the Social Security Appeals Process Take So Long?

Many disabled Americans pursuing Title II disability benefits or Supplemental Security Income benefits through the Social Security Administration are shocked to learn the length of time it may take to resolve their case. Most claimants are hard-workers who became disabled by no fault of their own. Unfortunately, when disabled workers need help the most, they discover that the system they paid into for years prior to becoming disabled is broken.

The Process:

After filing an application for disability benefits, a claimant can expect to wait an average of four (4) to six (6) months to receive an initial determination.

  1. Claims are sent to a state agency (Disability Determination Services) at this stage where medical records are requested and claims are reviewed by an examiner and a team of medical doctors. Unfortunately, the initial determination is often not favorable to the claimant. Those with illnesses deemed terminal or illnesses included in Social Security’s list of “Compassionate Allowances” may be approved at the initial stage, but a vast majority of claimants will need to appeal the first decision.
  2. After filing the Request for Reconsideration appeal, a claimant can expect to wait another three (3) to (5) months for the same state agency to request additional medical records and issue a new decision. Even fewer cases are awarded at the reconsideration stage than at the initial stage. The only option for a claimant following a reconsideration denial is to file an appeal requesting a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), and this is where the length of the process really becomes apparent.

Requests for hearing are sent to the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR). There are 168 such offices in the United States and the average processing time of each ODAR office is public information. In Charlotte, where most of our client’s cases are heard, the average processing time for a case is 507 days. This means that a claimant in Charlotte and surrounding areas can expect to wait approximately sixteen (16) or seventeen (17) months to receive a decision from an Administrative Law Judge after a Request for Hearing appeal is filed. Understandably, those who are out of work and pursuing disability benefits through Social Security are extremely distressed by this situation.

There are myriad reasons to explain why the social security appeals process process takes so long from beginning to end. First and foremost, the Social Security system, like all other government-run programs, faces serious budgetary constraints every year. Shortages in the budget have led to the closing of some local Social Security offices which field claims and provide services to our local communities. Social Security now provides many services online to mitigate the need for local offices and workers, but many disabled persons are not well-acquainted with computers or the internet. While applications and appeals for disability benefits can be filed online, these options have not helped to reduce the large backlog of claimants waiting to see a judge. Budgetary constraints also prevent the Administration from hiring and training additional Administrative Law Judges to hear and decide claims. There are over 11,000 claims for disability currently pending at ODAR in Charlotte, and only eleven (11) ALJ’s in the office to hear and decide cases. As if the shortage of ALJ’s is not enough of a problem, many ODAR offices are understaffed because of these same limitations.

Adding to the dilemma is the fact that our Baby Boomers (those among us born between 1946 and 1964) have reached the age where disabilities are more common. Baby Boomers are now reaching full retirement age and those who are not quite old enough to take retirement are more susceptible to becoming disabled. The National Academy of Social Insurance predicts that the beneficiary-to-worker ratio, which compares the number of people drawing benefits to the number of workers paying into Social Security, will rise from 35 per 100 in 2012 to 46 per 100 in 2030. The recent economic recession has also negatively impacted the disability appeals system. Many folks found themselves unemployed, unable to find gainful employment, and they had no other option but to file a claim for Social Security benefits. The thousands of claims filed for these unlucky reasons only further increased the number of pending cases in the pipeline.

Regrettably your lawyer only has a few ways to reduce the length of time it takes to get your case resolved. Many of my clients call upon their local Congressman or Congresswoman to make inquiries with Social Security on their behalf. The truth is, though, that such inquiries have a minimal effect on Social Security’s handling of a case. There are some instances where your lawyer can request “Dire Need” consideration. If you have been diagnosed with a terminal illness or you are facing foreclosure or eviction, you should let your attorney know right away. With the appropriate documentation, your claim may be prioritized for consideration by the judge.

Another useful tool in the Social Security Disability attorney’s arsenal is the request for on-the-record review. Depending on the claimant’s vocational profile (age, education, and relevant work experience) and the strength of the evidence (detailed statements from treating physicians and supportive medical records), some cases can be favorably resolved without the need for a hearing. While favorable decisions without a hearing are relatively infrequent, we thoroughly review the evidence in every case to determine whether an on-the-record request is a viable option.

In sum, the Social Security Disability appeals process is extremely lengthy and frustrating for those who need and expect immediate assistance. If you have questions about whether your case might qualify for expedited consideration, please contact Campbell & Associates for a free consultation today. We have helped thousands of disabled Americans get the benefits they deserve.

Written by: Brandon Ashburn, Social Security Attorney, Campbell & Associates, Attorneys at Law