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The Journal Gazette

City Social Security office bucks backlog – for now

Anyone filing for Social Security disability benefits expects a wait.

Hoosiers appealing their cases in the Fort Wayne office have been waiting shorter amounts of time since the start of 2010, but an analysis by a Syracuse University research center suggests that might not be true much longer.

Data through September show the backlog nationally has risen 9.3 percent from what it was a year ago, the fifth straight quarter the number of cases has increased, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a Syracuse University organization that gathers, researches and distributes public data.

Nationally, the backlog of pending cases has continued to increase this year, the organization said in its report this month.

Social Security disability insurance pays a beneficiary and various family members if the “insured” beneficiary has worked long enough and paid Social Security taxes. Routine denials can be appealed to be heard by administrative law judges in hearing offices, and more than half nationwide are overturned.

Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said in a statement this year that the university center’s focus on the backlog of pending hearings is a “flawed measurement.” The economic downturn and the aging of baby boomers cause a skyrocketing workload, Astrue said, prompting 130,000 more hearing requests in 2010 than were received in 2008.

Astrue contends the Social Security Administration is deciding the cases more accurately and quickly.

The Syracuse report said its data analysis suggests that success might not last.

Nationally, average processing times rose for the first time for cases disposed of this September. Almost half of all hearing offices saw their average hearing times increase compared to the previous month, the report said.

Whatever the best measurement of success, most people still wait months and sometimes years for a decision.

Last year, Hoosiers had the fifth-longest wait at an average of more than 17 months, while the national average was 14 months.

Now, the wait time in Indiana is just under a year, and Fort Wayne’s is even faster. The Fort Wayne office has continued to see decreases in processing times, with the average in September of 311 days, according to the Syracuse data.

Much of that progress was accomplished through federal stimulus funds. The Social Security Administration opened new national hearing centers or hearing offices in regions with lower levels and tried hard to move cases through.

An Indiana attorney last year told The Journal Gazette even a blizzard did not keep a Virginia administrative law judge from walking a short distance to work in the snow to keep videoconference appointments with Indiana clients.

But while the dedication might remain, some of the bankrolling has diminished.

Attorney Joseph Shull has been working with Social Security cases about 20 years and said he’s seen various attempts by the administration to get ahead fail. But what did help was opening new hearing centers such as the two that opened in Toledo and Valparaiso.

“We got the benefit of that,” Shull said. “The stimulus money helped quite a bit.”

The money also helped the offices hire more staff and attorneys. The Fort Wayne office added four new judges in two years, but two have already left. Others are retiring and won’t be replaced, Shull said.

All the evidence points to the situation worsening again, but how badly or how quickly remains to be seen, he said.

Despite the setbacks, the system in some ways is improved from a few years ago. In 2007, for example, The Journal Gazette reported the wait time nationally was about 17 months and in Fort Wayne had swelled to 21 months.

Shull sees a possible silver lining – with its past experience tackling an influx of cases, the Social Security Administration might be better prepared this time to do it again.

aturner@jg.net

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