While she waited for her first Social Security disability check, Cathie Nowicki, a former computer programmer, lived off her 401(k) savings, draining the nearly $20,000 she'd saved for retirement.
See also: Compassionate Allowances list expands again.
Nowicki, 52, received benefits five months after she applied — a lightning-fast response from a federal program plagued by lengthy delays.
"I was lucky," says the Trenton, N.J., woman, who has bipolar disorder, diabetes and other conditions.
For hundreds of thousands of disability applicants, however, the process is far more arduous. About 60 percent of cases are initially rejected. Applicants can ask for review by an administrative law judge, hire an attorney and wait months for a hearing.
Disability rolls tripled between 1970 and 2009, and benefits reached $124 billion in 2010, or 18 percent of the total, the Congressional Budget Office reports. By last fall, 840,000 initial applications were pending.
Part of the problem is the sour economy. Applications have soared since late 2007 as workers with disabilities lost jobs and couldn't find new employment. At the same time, more boomers — many of them unable to find jobs — have applied for disability benefits.
"We received 130,000 more hearing requests in 2010 than we received in 2008," Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told a House panel in testimony last July.
Social Security attributes the waiting periods to the sheer number of cases and the complexity of each one. "If someone is truly eligible for disability, we want to find the person eligible," says SSA spokesman Mark Hinkle. "We're also protecting taxpayers' money and don't want to pay benefits if they're not eligible."
The agency says it has managed to make significant cuts in processing times: An average wait of more than 500 days three years ago had dropped to 353 this June, it says.
But national averages don't tell the whole story. How long an applicant waits varies widely by location — and even by judge, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, a nonprofit think tank at Syracuse University.
Average processing time ranges from 161 days in Ponce, Puerto Rico, and 168 days in Shreveport, La., to 509 days in Springfield, Mo., and 544 days in Cleveland, Ohio, researchers at the clearinghouse found.
SSA has set a waiting-time goal of 270 days in 2013. To speed the process, it has hired more judges and fast-tracked consideration for 113 medical conditions under the Compassionate Allowances program. These include certain cancers, brain disorders and rare disorders affecting children.
But because some people try to game the system, the agency also has 24 investigative units fighting fraud and overpayments. Next year, it plans to conduct 60 percent more eligibility reviews of people already on disability.
All told, about 8.5 million workers and about 2 million adult children, widows and widowers were receiving disability benefits as of August. The average age of a disabled worker in the program now is 53. No one gets rich from the program: The average monthly benefit is $1,070.20.
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