The Long Wait: Americans stuck waiting months for disability benefit decisions

Average wait times for disability appeals range from 150 to 550 days in Social Security offices
Published: Feb. 8, 2021 at 7:07 PM EST
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(InvestigateTV) - In the last decade, 110,000 Americans have died waiting for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Each year, thousands of people appeal disability insurance denials, and many of them ultimately win. The issue: A backlog means appeals cases can take months or even years to get before a judge.

Just two years ago, Ashunti Osei-Copling was at the top of her field, motivating crowds at industry events, winning awards as an insurance agent. The single mom of two owned a home and her own business. Then in 2019, she was stopped in her tracks.

At just 38 years old, Osei-Copling was diagnosed with stage 4 multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.

“Then nothing. Then it just completely stopped. We moved in with family to help the transition of my children continuing their education in school. And I spent a lot of my time in the hospital in the beginning,” Osei-Copling said.

Osei-Copling is in the fight for her life. Last year, she was even put on Hospice care but made it out. In between the countless hospital trips and treatments and debilitating physical ailments, she’s no longer able to work. It’s a circumstance she and many Americans never saw coming.

“I didn’t ever see myself needing SSDI before retirement. But in a situation, raising two young boys, it was definitely necessary for me to receive the benefits as soon as possible for me to help continue our process of living,” Osei-Copling said.

SSDI is the government insurance program that automatically takes money from everyone’s paychecks. It’s a vital benefit for about 8.5 million Americans each year who can no longer support themselves due to serious and long-lasting medical conditions. 117,000 spouses and 1.5 million children are also supported by the program.

Osei-Copling never thought she’d need this kind of help.

“You can pretty much imagine going from owning your home and owning your own business to just everything stopping one day immediately,” she said.

In multiple myeloma chat groups, she sees a major problem nearly every day. People write that they’ve been waiting on government help for months, even years.

“There are people that get denied that have gone through transplants that still have the disease, that are in stage 4 that are on hospice, and they still get denied because they may have missed questions on their paperwork or they did not submit everything in a timely manner,” Osei-Copling said.

Americans aren’t just denied. They do have a chance for appeal, but the wait to get go before a judge can be years. As of last fall the Social Security Administration said 410,000 Americans were waiting for a hearing on a denial.

In Richmond, the average wait was 259 days in October. In Colorado Springs, the average wait was 427 days. In Reno, the wait was 515 days. That’s nearly a year and a half just to find out if someone will get an appeal.

Use the chart below to see wait times for appeals cases in your area. You can use the filter on the left to select your state.

According to a report in August from the Government Accountability Office, nationwide, people who filed an appeal waited more than one year for a final decision on their claim. Some 48,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy awaiting a benefits decision between 2014 and 2019. And nearly 110,000 who filed an appeal between 2008 and 2019 died before ever getting an answer.

“For as long as I’ve been working here, which is nearly 18 years, there’s always been a backlog,” said, T.J. Geist, the Director of Claims at a leading disability representation firm named Allsup.

“It’s a complex program. It takes a while to gather the information that is needed and to gather information from treating doctors as well. We can assist with making sure that the information is completed accurately. That’s a big reason why many people are denied at the initial level,” Geist said.

He likens the help his firm provides to those getting help filing taxes.

“You use a software or you use a representative to help you with that. Same goes for Social Security Disability,” Geist said.

Wait times have gone down slightly in recent years, but there’s still no telling from the latest data how COVID has affected everything.

The agency acknowledged the backlog and pandemic in August in a response to the GAO’s report, writing: “We have made significant progress improving the hearings process by prioritizing the cases of those individuals who have waited the longest for a hearing decision. Despite the uncertainties about how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect our progress, we will continuously seek opportunities to improve the service we provide to the public.”

As for Osei-Copling, she didn’t wait because she got help immediately after her diagnosis from a disability representation firm. It helped contact the doctors, get the medical reports and fill out the paper work. She believes more people need to get help and not go through this process alone because the wait times for answers are not going away.

“You need someone in your corner that’s going to help guide you through or calm you down because it can get frustrating when you have illness,” Osei-Copling said.

There are many law firms that can help fill out disability claims. You can check online to find firms in your area. Note that many offer free evaluations to see if you qualify for help - and many don’t charge for services unless or until you are approved for benefits.

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