Delays in processing disability applications impose 'significant hardships' in Tennessee

A longstanding backlog in the processing of disability benefits applications from people who are too sick to work has surpassed 1.1 million people nationally - a 27% increase from pre-pandemic levels two years ago and a level not seen in more than a decade.

In Tennessee, the number of people waiting to see if their disability benefits have been approved has increased by 40%, according to data complied by the National Association of Social Security Claims Representatives, a membership group of disability law attorneys and paralegals.

Attorneys in Tennessee say the long wait has imposed "significant hardships" on many of their clients, including losing homes, jobs and access to health care benefits received through employers. In extreme instances, attorneys described clients who have died - from illness and suicide - while waiting.

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"The longer a cases takes, the more despair and hopelessness there is," Chris George, an attorney in Gallatin, Tennessee, said.

The backlog in cases has been compounded by Social Security Administration office closures, remote claims processing, staffing shortages and other delays, including short-staffed hospital records administrators who must provide the medical evidence needed to demonstrate an individual is physically disabled, Peter Harris, an attorney based in Madison, Tennessee, said.

"It's even more of a problem now that the free programs are out," Harris said, referring to eviction moratoria, supplemental unemployment insurance and other programs designed to ease the financial burden during the pandemic.

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The Social Security Administration oversees two disability programs: Supplemental Security Income for low-income individuals without a work history, and Social Security Disability Insurance for workers who become disabled. Both programs provide monthly federal payments for people found to be too debilitated to work. Disability Insurance benefits are based on an individual's prior employment history, ranging from a few hundred dollars per month to more than $2,800. Supplemental Security benefits for people without a history of employment max out at $841 per month.

The administrative work of receiving, reviewing and approving or denying benefits from the federal programs is delegated to each state.

Harris, who also serves as general counsel for the federal employee union that represents Social Security employees across the country, said the Social Security Administration and state disability determination departments have compounded the difficulties faced during the pandemic.

"Management has made things 20 times worse, and applicants have been left out in the cold," he said. "Employees [who process disability applications] are pushed in this environment to hurry things up."

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Employees who handle disability claims are being evaluated on how quickly they get through phone inquiries - just 10 minutes per call, an inadequate amount of time to answer questions about the often intricate application process, Harris said. Applicants are frequently asked to re-submit the same lengthy sheets of paperwork months after they first apply.

Last month, Social Security offices across the nation reopened after a two-year closure.

At the Madison office near his law practice, Harris said it is routine to see 30 or more people waiting in line. Most of the walk-in inquires to Social Security offices are for replacement Social Security cards or letters outlining Social Security benefits. But for those standing outside in line to inquire about disability benefits, the answer they receive when they get inside the building is they must make an appointment.

"It's an incredibly frustrating process for people," Harris said.