RALEIGH, N.C. Steadily lengthening delays in the resolution of Social Security disability claims have left hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory, waiting as long as three years for a decision.
Two-thirds of those who appeal an initial rejection eventually win their cases.
But in the meantime, more and more people have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or even died while awaiting an appeals hearing, say lawyers representing claimants and officials of the Social Security Administration, which administers disability benefits for those judged unable to work or who face terminal illness.
The agency's plan to hire at least 150 new appeals judges to reduce the backlog, which has soared to 755,000 from 311,000 in 2000, will require $100 million more than the president requested this year and still more in the future.
The plan has been delayed by the standoff between Congress and the White House over domestic appropriations.
There are 1,025 judges currently at work, and the wait for an appeals hearing averages more than 500 days, compared with 258 in 2000. Without new hirings, federal officials predict even longer waits and more of the personal tragedies that can result from years of painful uncertainty.
Progress against the backlog, if it happens, cannot undo the three years that Belinda Virgil of Fayetteville has worried about her future since her initial application was turned down. Tethered to an oxygen tank 24 hours a day because of emphysema and life-threatening sleep apnea, Virgil lost her apartment and has alternated between a sofa in her daughter's crowded house and a friend's place as she waits for answer to her appeal.
"It's been hell," said Virgil, 44, who finally got her hearing in November and is awaiting the outcome. "I've got no money for Christmas, I move from house to house, and I'm getting really depressed," she said.
The disability process is complex and the standard for approval has, from the inception of the program in the 1950s, been intentionally strict to prevent malingering and drains on the treasury.