Study: Social Security disability backlogs vary greatly by state

Influx in applications and employee furloughs contribute to some delays, data indicates.

Geography plays a major role in how long an applicant will have to wait to receive disability benefits, according to an Allsup study by the Social Security disability insurance representation firm of data released by the Social Security Administration.

Applicants living in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia face the longest delays. For example, an applicant who resides in Delaware will wait on average fewer than 10 months for a hearing, while the same applicant in Ohio would wait almost 20 months.

The 10 states with the shortest wait times are Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and West Virginia, according to the study.

Jim Allsup, president and chief executive officer of Allsup, said SSA has made solid progress in reducing wait times for hearings across the country. Twenty-four of 46 states with hearing offices have experienced shorter wait times since 2008. SSA reports the national average processing time for a hearing decision is now 442 days, down from 514 days in September 2008. The total hearings backlog has decreased by more than 71,000 cases since December 2008.

"The Social Security Administration staff should be commended for the vigor with which they have attacked the massive disability backlog issue," Allsup said. "Unfortunately, some people unfairly face longer waits and increased hardship, and a crush of new recession-driven applications threatens to undo all the progress that has been made."

The agency expects to receive more than 3.3 million applications for disability benefits this fiscal year, about 700,000 more than in fiscal 2008. In addition, more than a dozen states are furloughing federally funded state workers who make disability decisions for Social Security. According to SSA, this combination has resulted in a growing backlog of initial disability applications in state Disability Determination Services offices.

In March, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue announced the opening of the first Extended Service Team in Little Rock, Ark. The agency is establishing ESTs in states that have received an influx of new disability claims as a result of the recession as well as furloughs of the state employees who run the Disability Determination Services. By the end of the year, SSA will have opened three additional ESTs in Mississippi, Virginia and Oklahoma, Astrue said.

"The strategy behind ESTs builds on our success with National Hearing Centers, where cases are handled electronically from all over the country," Astrue said at the Little Rock opening. "These centralized units have reduced the hearings backlog and improved processing times at some of the hardest-hit hearing offices. This approach clearly works and extending it in this way can help us meet the challenge of unprecedented growth in our disability workloads."

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