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10,000 people died in the past year while stuck in a backlog of judges’ disability cases. What will

Monday, November 27, 2017   (0 Comments)
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The Washington Post

 by Terrence McCoy

 

10,000 people died in the past year while stuck in a backlog of judges’ disability cases. What will happen to Joe Stewart?

 

Webster County, Miss. — On the 597th day, the day he hoped everything would change, Joe Stewart woke early. He took 15 pills in a single swallow. He shaved his head. And then he got down to the business of the day, which was the business of every day, and that was waiting. He looked outside, and saw his mother there in a green sedan, engine running. So many months he had waited for this moment, and now it was here. Time for his Social Security disability hearing. Time to go.

Stewart, 55, set out on crutches, tottering out of his mobile home and down a metal ramp he’d laid when stairs became too much. “I’m sweating my ass off,” he said, getting into his mother’s car, his long-sleeved dress shirt hanging open. He tilted the passenger seat all the way down, placed a pillow at the small of his back and, groaning and wincing, settled in as best he could.

Disabled America: Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving federal disability payments increased significantly across the country, but nowhere more so than in rural America. In this series, The Washington Post explores how disability is shaping the culture, economy and politics of these small communities.
Part 1: Disabled, or just desperate? Rural Americans turn to disability as jobs dry up
Part 2: Generations, disabled One family. Four generations of disability benefits. Will it continue?
Part 3: Disabled and disdained How disability benefits divided this rural community between those who work and those who don’t
Part 4: ‘I am a hard worker’ Some say people on disability just need to get back to work. It’s not that easy.
Part 5: After the check is gone Her disability check was gone, and now the only option left was also one of the worst.
Above: Joe Stewart, pictured outside his mobile home in Webster County, Miss., applied for disability in May 2015 and is still awaiting a decision. “I may be blind and toothless before I get any help,” he says.
“Did they say long-sleeved?” asked his mother, Jean Bingham, 73.

“It was the only decent shirt I had!” he said.

He knew only what he’d been told by his lawyer, who wanted to see him again before the hearing, and that was not to wear a T-shirt and to bring along a list of medications he uses to treat the pains that are all he has to show for a lifetime spent installing vinyl siding throughout Webster County. Neurontin for nerve pain. Baclofen for muscle spasms. Trazodone for depression. Hydroxyzine and Buspirone for anxiety, a condition that seemed to worsen each day his wait stretched into the next.

Stewart had first applied for federal disability benefits on May 21, 2015. The application was denied, and so was his appeal. When he appealed the second rejection, he went to the back of one of the federal government’s biggest backlogs, where 1.1 million disability claimants wait for one of some 1,600 Social Security administrative law judges to decide whether they deserve a monthly payment and Medicare or Medicaid. “A death sentence” is how Stewart, who has no health insurance, has come to think of another denial.


For other applicants, the wait itself may be enough to accomplish that. In the past two years, 18,701 people have died while waiting for a judge’s decision, increasing 15 percent from 8,699 deaths in fiscal 2016 to 10,002 deaths in fiscal 2017, according to preliminary federal data obtained by The Washington Post. The rising death toll coincides with a surge in the length of time people must wait for a disposition, which swelled from a national average of 353 days in 2012 to a record high of 596 this past summer.

The simplest explanation is that there isn’t enough money. The Social Security Administration’s budget has been roughly stagnant since 2010, while the number of people receiving retirement and disability benefits has risen by more than 7 million, despite a slight decline in the disability rolls beginning in 2015 as some beneficiaries reached retirement age.

The more complicated explanation, however, also includes fewer supporting staff members helping judges. A recession that increased the number of applications and appeals. A new regulation that requires additional medical evidence, lengthening the files judges have to read. And heightened scrutiny in the aftermath of a 2011 scandal in Huntington, W.Va., where one judge, who approved nearly everyone who came before him, was later convicted of taking $600,000 in bribes. Since then, according to a September report by the Social Security Administration Office of the Inspector General, the average judge has gone from deciding 12 cases every week to fewer than 10, a relatively small slowdown that, spread across hundreds of weeks and hundreds of judges, has contributed to the crushing backlog.


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