By Cornelius Frank
U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown's state director met in Columbus on Wednesday with regional officials from the Social Security Administration to discuss how to reduce the local backlog of appeals for disability benefits, following a Dayton Daily News story on processing delays.
In a July 30 article, the Daily News reported that the Social Security Administration's Dayton hearing office in the last two fiscal years was the second slowest in the nation for processing appeals for benefits. Even though the office has improved wait times -- this year it has not ranked among the 20 slowest in the country -- Brown said more must be done to reduce the delays further. He said wait times may shrink if more hospitals transitioned to electronic medical records and more members of the public were aware of and utilized video-hearing options.
"This is important because these are life and death situations for people who have lost jobs and are unable to go to work and need an answer from their government about whether they qualify for Social Security disability," Brown, D-Ohio, said in an interview. "We want these done as quickly as possible."
Most initial applications for Social Security Disability Insurance benefits are denied, but a fraction of applicants choose to appeal their cases, and many of those appeals are successful. The disability insurance program provides monthly income to people who are unable to work because of severe and long-term disabilities. About 21,511 Ohioans filed appeals for benefits last fiscal year, including 2,188 at the Dayton office.
In fiscal year 2011, the average wait time for a decision on an appeal for disability benefits at the Dayton office was 491 days, compared to the national average of 345 days. Of the nation's 157 operational Social Security hearing offices in 2011, only the office in Buffalo, N.Y., was slower than Dayton's. The Dayton office was also the second slowest in fiscal year 2010, behind only the Columbus office.
Slow processing times are a concern because applicants often lack income for necessities such as medication and health care. As a result, some applicants fall into deep poverty or become more severely disabled as they wait for a decision.
A Dec. 28 Wall Street Journal article reported that since 2005 more than 15,000 people have died while waiting for an administrative law judge to rule on their appeals.
Brown praised the Dayton office for trimming the average wait time to about 397 days this year, compared to 596 days in fiscal year 2010. But he noted that the Dayton office is still the slowest in the state, and only 27 offices nationwide this year take longer to process appeals.
Brown said he wants to work with the Social Security Administration to find ways to expedite the appeals process for Miami Valley residents. As a result of discussions during Wednesday's meeting, Brown said he believes that the long waits are partly attributable to some hospitals lacking electronic medical records and the public's lack of awareness about video-conferencing hearings.
Brown said his office will work with problem hospitals to prioritize the transition to electronic medical records. He said his office will also try to educate more people about video-conferencing disability hearings, which usually can be scheduled sooner than in-person hearings.
Carmen Moreno, the communications director for the Social Security Administration's Chicago region, said she is pleased that the Dayton office continues to shorten processing times, and her agency supports more widespread use of video hearings.
"It's our technology, so of course we are incredibly supportive of that," she said.
She said sharing medical information electronically can speed up the process of filing and collecting medical records, and her agency has partnered with Kaiser Parmanente, on the country's leading health care organizations, to launch a pilot program that allows for the digital exchange of health information.