Data shows backlog, long wait for social security disability hearings

Updated: Feb. 8, 2021 at 7:00 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - A WTOC Investigation found some people in Georgia and South Carolina are waiting more than a year just to find out if they are eligible for social security disability benefits.

According to data given to WTOC by the Social Security Administration (SSA), 63.4% of people who apply for disability are denied the first time. The SSA said it usually takes about 200 days to find out. But for many, that’s just the beginning. According to new data released in October, the average wait time for an appeal hearing in the Savannah area is 356 days – nearly an entire year.

Jimmie James is a 29-year military veteran who just recently was approved for disability benefits.

“I had a family member that was waiting on social security disability for eight years. He received his social security disability, and I mean within two weeks he passed away,” said James.

James, a South Carolina native and father of four, told WTOC four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan left him with PTSD and a spinal disease. He said he can only stand for five to ten minutes at a time.

James was denied when he first applied for social security in late 2019. He told WTOC it left him with an uneasy feeling.

”My whole goal was to get out and still continue to work. So, when that ability was taken away from me, it makes you nervous,” James said. “Because now, you don’t know what you’re going to do.”

James did his research and sought representation. He hired Allsup, a group that fights for people seeking disability. Ten months later, he received his first payment.

But not everyone is so fortunate.

”More people are denied social security that deserve it than people who are approved that don’t deserve it,” said Savannah attorney Jeffrey Lasky.

Lasky operates Lasky Cooper Law in downtown Savannah. He said the firm has fought disability cases for four decades. Lasky told WTOC he believes the problem is not the Social Security Administration, but the lack of resources Congress gives them.

”They do the best they can do. They try and keep up with the workload,” said Lasky. “But it is staggering what these judges and staff have to deal with in terms of just sheer numbers.”

As of October, both Savannah and Charleston had roughly 2,500 pending disability appeals. According to an August report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, since 2014 more than 48,000 people have filed for bankruptcy while awaiting their appeal. Since 2008, more than 100,000 have died waiting on a decision.

”We’ve had a lot of clients that have been so bad, that we worry about them dying. And have actually died before their benefits got awarded,” said Lasky. “It is a difficult practice to be a lawyer in because it is so sad. Every case is sad.”

Lasky said the process can take years and involve a lot of paperwork and doctors’ visits. He advises anyone seeking disability to hire someone to represent them.

James’s advice to those still waiting for benefits is to keep the faith. ”Do not give up,” said James. “I understand it can be burdensome. It’s a lengthy process. But please do not give up.”

The Social Security Administration told WTOC 54% of people who re-apply for disability after being denied get approved. WTOC Investigates asked why it takes nearly a year to get a hearing. The SSA did not answer the question directly, but told WTOC, “to shorten the process we work with claimants to ensure we have the latest medical evidence in file and we provide options such as video hearings so we can schedule a hearing as soon as possible.”

According to the Social Security Administration, 330,699 Georgians received disability payments at the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year – the most recent data available. The average monthly payment was $1,258. The Administration said at that time, about $348,000,000 were paid to disabled workers each month.

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