Social Security backlog grows from lack of cash

Congress has repeatedly shorted the agency’s funding requests, and we all pay the price through disability delays and bungled payments

Monday, August 04, 2008
The Oregonian and BRENT WALTH
Excerpted portions of a series of related stories:

Anyone who stands in line for Social Security disability benefits learns certain truths. The system is slow. It’s wasteful. And it’s often cruel.

Those who have tried to fix the system’s immense backlog of claims know why: Congress and the White House have tried to run the agency on the cheap, starving a bureaucracy that must process 2.5 million disability applications a year.

Hundreds of thousands of U.S. workers whose disabilities have pushed them out of the labor force wait in line for years before getting benefits — if they live that long.

______ A need for speed ________

One way to prevent delays is to secure benefits before claims get lost in the hearings backlog.

A Portland nonprofit, Central City Concern, recently created a team of five specialists just to prepare disability applications for some of the metro area’s most vulnerable citizens. The charity’s Benefits and Entitlements Specialist Team, a frenetic outfit, occupies a windowless downtown office called the “bullpen.”

Team members, backed by $361,000 in grants this year, have worked since March helping physically impaired or mentally ill people — many left homeless by their conditions — submit thorough claims. They work the phones like detectives to hunt down evidence, including medical records and doctors’ summaries and photos.

Mellani Calvin, the team’s manager, modeled the effort after a successful national program. So far, says Calvin, the Portland team has filed 20 claims and won nine approvals in an average of 25 days. One applicant got benefits in a record seven days, she says.

The delay in getting disability benefits ranks consistently among the top constituent complaints to Blumenauer and other members of Congress.
Blumenauer says lawmakers might have fixed this problem long ago if Social Security’s delays affected people with more clout.

“You would be seeing the media doing more, business leaders calling for change, real political outrage and you would get some real pressure on the administration,” he says.

“What we have here, though, are largely invisible victims with not much of a voice.”

Bryan Denson: 503-294-7614; Brent Walth: 503-294-5072;