This Atlanta woman lost her home waiting for disability

Mary Ann Statler, an accountant from Acworth, had battled depression and anxiety for years, but in the summer of 2015 her condition worsened dramatically.

In June of that year, she went to an urgent care center complaining of a heavy feeling in her chest she associated with a panic attack. After a few tests, the center rushed her to a hospital for observation. Then in August she broke her shoulder — a break so bad it required surgery to fix.

Statler’s doctor finally said enough was enough. Her medical condition had deteriorated to the point where she should no long work. It wasn’t welcome news.

“I made a pretty good salary,” said the single parent of three children. “Just as much as I tried to push myself, I couldn’t do it.”

Following her doctor’s advice, Statler applied in August 2015 for disability benefits from Social Security.

Social Security denied her claim — twice — but gave her the option to schedule an appeal hearing before an administrative law judge. Since then, she has been caught in a backlog of disputed disability claims totalling more than 1 million cases nationwide. And that backlog is only getting worse.

“It’s been really tough,” she said. “I don’t wish this on anybody.”

In Georgia alone, Statler is one of 28,000 people waiting an average of nearly three years to be heard. During that delay, those waiting often get worse or even die before a decision is made on their benefits, experts say.

“It’s a serious problem,” said Mike Stein, assistant vice president with Allsup, an Illinois-based firm that represents people filing disability claims. “Even a good office is making people wait 400-plus days.”

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Hollow victory for Statler

For Statler, 53, the wait was financially devastating. She lost her car, her house and her savings. She cashed in her life insurance and her children’s college funds. She got worse medically as well as she was forced to put off costly treatment while her case was pending. A heart attack in September landed her in the hospital.

In the end, the judge gave full approval for her disability claim, but it will be late next month before she sees a penny of her benefits. That’s too late to save her house, which was sold in a bank foreclosure. She has to be out shortly after the new year, she said.

David Deganian, an attorney who represents Social Security disability applicants in Morgan & Morgan’s Atlanta office, said one of the hardest parts of his job is setting expectations for clients who already have been through an initial denial of benefits.

“We used to tell people it was 12-18 months. Now we tell them it’s 18-24,” he said. “It’s hard to tell people that. They’ve already been waiting a year.”

In September, U.S. Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, opened a hearing of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee with a statement on behalf of the 1 million Americans in the backlog.

“While not all of them will qualify for benefits, all of these people deserve an answer in a timely fashion,” he said.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Sharp drop in administrative decisions fuels backlog

The disability backlog is not a new story. In fact, the Congressional hearing is just the latest bit of outrage in a saga that goes back decades. The Inspector General's Office for Social Security lists the backlog as one of its top concerns, in part because it's only getting worse.

In 2010, the agency had 705,000 cases awaiting a hearing. In 2016, it had grown to 1.1 million. And they are waiting longer than ever. The Inspector General found wait times increased 27 percent over that time period to an average of 543 days.

In Social Security’s downtown Atlanta office, it’s even worse. There claimants can expect to wait an average of 649 days.

And the increased wait comes at a time when the number of new cases entering the system has been going down. So there’s less work to do and it’s taking longer to do it. The same is true for the administration’s offices in Marietta, Macon and Savannah.

There are reasons for this and they are self-inflicted.

To handle the backlog, Social Security allows judges and the senior attorneys who work with them to view case files, and if the evidence was there, administratively approve them without a hearing. These are called "on the record" decisions.

Stein said such decisions were an efficient way to deal with some of the most clear-cut cases. But a federal audit completed two years ago found on-the-record decisions had almost disappeared from Social Security's toolbox. In 2010, senior attorneys or judges handed down almost 116,000 on-the-record decisions, but that total dropped by 97 percent in just four years.

Apparently the program was a victim of its own success. Initially, the agency targeted the oldest cases in the backlog by giving senior staff attorneys greater latitude to make these decisions, presumably freeing up judges to hear the harder cases.

From 2008 to 2013, some 600 senior attorneys across the nation cleared out 200,000 pending cases in favor of disabled workers. Doing the math, that’s less than one case a week per attorney.

But as the number of favorable decisions grew, Social Security administrators got nervous and started reining it in. The agency created an administrative bottleneck of just six attorneys who reviewed cases before distributing them to other lawyers across the country.

These six attorneys concentrated on physical ailments, rather than cases like Statler’s, where the disability was largely related to mental health. As a result, decisions by attorneys fell off a cliff, from a high of 61,413 in 2010 to 607 in 2015.

Social Security called that “quality control.” However you feel about disability claims in general, it’s hard to believe that staff attorneys were making so many wrong decisions that a 99 percent drop was warranted.

More judges but fewer staff to help

The audit recommended the agency focus on training and sampling of on-the-record decisions, rather than its “stovepipe” approach. The agency agreed, but the backlog has only gotten worse.

The reduction in on-the-record decisions places more pressure on the agency’s judges to be more productive — yet the opposite has happened. Administrative law judges have become strikingly less productive over the decade, even through there are more of them than ever before.

From 2011 to 2016, the agency increased its staff by 146 judges, but number of decisions processed dropped 14 percent. Why? An audit concluded this fall found that while the number of judges increased, the staffers under them did not. The result is that judges have less help preparing cases today than in 2011.

The audit recommended hiring additional staff to help move cases along. The agency’s comment is a bunch of word salad about how they “align existing resources to determine the proper staffing ratios.” In the end, the agency agreed with the finding, but offered no clear way forward.

Stein said the agency needs still more judges to move the backlog along. The agency had a goal of hiring an additional 250 judges in fiscal 2017, but missed that target by half.

If part of the solution is more personnel, I wouldn't hold my breath. President Trump instituted a hiring moratorium upon taking office this year. Social Security received special permission to do some restocking, but it's barely kept up with the pace of attrition.

The White House has pushed early retirement at Social Security, as well as other agencies, as a way to cut personnel costs. Administrative law judges aren't eligible, but support staff is.

In the meantime, more people like Statler will continue to wait and suffer the consequences of a federal promise unfulfilled.

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