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'Lost that hope' waiting for a disability decision

More than a million people are waiting for judge to reconsider their claim for Social Security disability benefits. Many face losing their homes and even their lives while they wait.

Katie Wilcox, Chris Vanderveen

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Published: 2/19/2018 5:17:53 AM
Updated: 5:17 AM MST February 19, 2018

Americans with legitimate disability claims are routinely denied benefits under the Social Security Disability Insurance program, then find themselves trapped waiting months, even years, to get a decision on an appeal, a 9Wants to Know examination of federal data found.

The investigation found that while more than 1 million people wait for their appeals to be heard nationwide, many lose their savings or retirement funds, others their homes, sometimes ending up on the streets.

Thousands have died while waiting for a hearing, according to the Office of the Inspector General.

“It’s this major injustice,” said Denver disability attorney, Will Viner. “What has happened with the increase in the backlog is people are losing their house, unable to pay for food and shelter. In the past year we have had nine clients pass away.”

The problem, well known within the halls of Congress and the Social Security Administration, continues to push some of the country’s most vulnerable to the brink of financial disaster.

And the delays are getting worse.

Having trouble seeing the data? Click here.

In Denver for example, the average wait time to come before a judge was 18 months in January 2018. In the same month of 2014, the wait was 11.5 months.

The Social Security Administration provides disability benefits to workers, and sometimes their dependents, who are too disabled due to illness or injury to continue working. However, federal data show that more than two thirds of applicants are denied every year based on medical criteria. After getting denied, applicants have the option to request a hearing before a judge.

Those workers who are waiting for a hearing hope to be granted the benefits, about $1,200 per month on average, through the federal disability insurance program they paid into via the payroll tax. In 2015, 85 percent of the funds for the disability insurance program came from payroll taxes, according to the Social Security Administration. The rest came from the account’s interest earnings, taxes on the benefits themselves and treasury funds.

“Somebody would not choose to go homeless if they could work,” said Colorado disability law attorney Dale Casares. “They are going homeless because it is taking so long for them to get a hearing date in front of the judge. And then hopefully they win.”

Not who are denied file for an appeal, but data reviewed by 9Wants to Know suggest more than half of people nationwide who appeal ultimately win.

In other words, some people must wait years just to be proven right.