Our bureaucracy traps Americans with disabilities

Wheelchairs sit empty as several disabled veterans take advantage of an opportunity for horseback trail riding at the National Veterans Training, Exposure and Experience Tournament in Riverside in 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Wheelchairs sit empty as several disabled veterans take advantage of an opportunity for horseback trail riding at the National Veterans Training, Exposure and Experience Tournament in Riverside in 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

Economic opportunity for all is the cornerstone of the American dream. Many individuals in our community, however, face obstacles in reaching this opportunity because of their disability.

These individuals have just as strong a desire to be self-sufficient as individuals without disabilities, but desire alone is not enough; the labor force participation rate for people with disabilities is just over 20 percent (compared with nearly 70 percent for people without disabilities).

One avenue for self-empowerment is the Social Security Disability Insurance program. Funded by workers’ payroll taxes, SSDI provides monthly income and other benefits, including health care insurance, when an illness or injury stops someone from working for 12 months or longer.

SSDI allows individuals to maintain their independence and focus on recovery, with the hope of being able to re-enter the workforce. Unfortunately, former workers with disabilities face bureaucratic barriers to getting these benefits.

One barrier is particularly concerning: a massive backlog of nearly 1.1 million people waiting for a Social Security Disability Insurance hearing. After up to a year in the initial processes, applicants for disability benefits have to wait an average of 596 days for a hearing decision from an administrative law judge to learn if they will receive benefits.

This backlog is hurting families and making it extremely difficult for recently disabled former workers to stabilize their lives and, if possible, return to work.

While waiting for a SSDI hearing, which could be as long as three years, a former worker could lose his or her house, health insurance, savings and retirement funds. While this is happening, is it really likely that this individual can focus on recovery and getting back to work?

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Morale and hope fade as these individuals wait. This difficult and frustrating process makes it next to impossible for most applicants to focus on getting better or working again.

Ultimately, about half of those subjected to this delay will be deemed eligible to receive benefits.

The bureaucratic barriers causing this backlog are not only a burden, they are inhuman. The Social Security Administration has estimated that 8,600 people died in fiscal 2016 while waiting for a disability hearing.

Worse yet, this backlog is not a surprise. The Social Security Administration and Congress saw it coming long ago, but took only tepid steps to prevent the backlog from growing larger and harming Americans with disabilities and their families.

Lawmakers at a hearing of the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee in early September demanded answers from Social Security officials. They need to follow up.

The Social Security Administration projects that the backlog will last five more years, citing many reasons. Among them: too few judges and staff, budget reductions, too many new rules that create more obstacles for applicants, and limited use of tools that speed up adjudication for deserving claimants. So far, there is little evidence of a commitment to real, sustainable solutions.

While Congress and Social Security officials have slow-walked improvements to the program, the backlog has grown.

The number of people waiting has increased 58 percent, up from 705,000 since fiscal 2010. The number of cases decided at the hearing level dropped 29 percent between 2012 and 2016.

What’s more, the Social Security Administration has not had a Senate-approved commissioner since February 2013. This lack of permanent leadership at the top has contributed to this festering problem.

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The Social Security Administration can and should do better for those trapped in this maze. Americans with disabilities and their families should not be cast aside and made to wait simply because bureaucrats cannot efficiently process their claims in a timely way. The backlog must be cleared.

The entire disability community — not just those applying for disability benefits — has a loud voice and is speaking up about the backlog.

People with disabilities account for about 16 percent of the electorate — 25 percent when we include our family members. If something is not done soon to resolve this backlog, disability groups intend to use their influence at the ballot box and hold our elected leaders accountable for this continuing injustice.

• Helena Berger is president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities and has been a disability-rights advocate for 30 years

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