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  • March 01, 2023

    What’s the Hold Up? Delays with the Social Security Disability Decisions

    Social Security Disability payments for disabled individuals reentering society from incarceration are an important lifeline, allowing them to achieve the kind of independence and economic stability that promotes community ties and reduces recidivism. Kelsey Brown presents reasons for these delays and concludes with the impact the delays have on her clients’ lives.

    Kelsey Brown

    Since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, the wait to time get an initial decision in Wisconsin on a Social Security disability application has gone from about three months to more than eight months.

    And that’s not including the appeal process, which can take additional 12 to 24 months, from the time of submission (Request for Reconsideration after initial decision denial) to ultimately appearing before an administrative law judge (if the Reconsideration is denied), then having to wait another three to four months for a decision from the judge.

    All in all, the Social Security Administration (SSA) Disability process in Wisconsin went from 12 months tops (initial application, reconsideration, administrative law judge hearing) to 22 months and counting.

    Kelsey Brown Kelsey Brown, Marquette 2019, is a staff attorney with Legal Action of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where she focuses on Social Security disability benefits for individuals newly released from incarceration.

    There are few reasons that can be contributed to these delays including:

    Staff shortages. Many SSA employees are either retiring or leaving for better employment opportunities, leaving many local SSA offices struggling to fill their open positions. This led to examiners having their caseload double from an average of 100 cases to 200 cases.

    Surge in applications from two different groups. Group one applications are from the nearly 80 million baby boomers beginning to retire, either because they reached retirement age, have disabling conditions, or because they don’t have steady income due to pandemic job cuts.

    Group two applications are coming from people struggling with complications from having COVID-19. Newly termed “long COVID,” this diagnosis is for people experiencing long lasting mental and physical complications from COVID-19. In fact, long COVID is now a condition protected by the Americans with Disability Act (ADA).

    Outdated technology. Due to the SSA’s obsolete programs, I’ve had clients’ applications that were misplaced for months, unintentionally ignored for weeks, or closed or rejected to due incorrect or missed information.

    More evidence is required. When submitting a disability application, I find that the SSA is requesting more and more information from various sources, including medical providers, schools, prisons, and the clients themselves.

    The average disability case file grew from 160 pages in 2010 to more than 900 pages by 2020. This is unfortunate, given that when an examiner finally does receive an applicant’s records, they are often dated. In short, this requires the examiner to request additional records, updated functioning reports from the applicant, or schedule last minute consultative examinations – of all which led to an examiner having to analyze more evidence.

    I don’t doubt the SSA is working as hard as it can to process these applications in a timely manner. However, I believe a reallocation of resources, improved technology, and increase in staffing will go a long way to combating these delays.

    Conclusion: Delay Is Not Ideal

    These delays force many, if not all, my clients to wait months – sometimes years – for a decision on their application alone, and they must wait even longer to actually receive a payment.

    This is not ideal, considering that the population I serve are newly released from prison with serious mental health issues who have little to no family or financial support. Specifically, many will experience homelessness, reincarceration or recidivism, lack of financial stability, lack of health insurance that comes with receiving disability benefits, lack of basic necessities, and exacerbation of their disabilities.

    Oftentimes, disability benefits are my clients only source of income. And so, having to deal with these delays leaves many in limbo, struggling to function and perform everyday activities. This is all without any guarantee of even receiving a disability payment, upon which they rely to pay rent, bills, put food on the table, buy clothes, and visit the doctor.

    This article was originally published on the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Public Interest Law Section Blog. Visit the State Bar sections or the Public Interest Law Section webpages to learn more about the benefits of section membership.

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    Public Interest Law Section Blog is published by the State Bar of Wisconsin; blog posts are written by section members. To contribute to this blog, contact Jacob Haller and review Author Submission Guidelines. Learn more about the Public Interest Law Section or become a member.

    Disclaimer: Views presented in blog posts are those of the blog post authors, not necessarily those of the Section or the State Bar of Wisconsin. Due to the rapidly changing nature of law and our reliance on information provided by outside sources, the State Bar of Wisconsin makes no warranty or guarantee concerning the accuracy or completeness of this content.

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