10,000 People Have Died in the Last Year While Waiting on Judges to Decide Their SSDI Cases – What is Behind the Backlog?

With more than 1 million of backlog cases and almost two-year waiting periods, many applicants won’t live long enough for their hearing. We explain the reasons behind the backlog and explore possible solutions.

This is the first part of a two-part article on the Social Security disability backlog. To read the second part, click here.

The Wait is Long, The Outcome – Unsure

In mid-November, The Washington Post published an article entitled “597 days. And still waiting” which presented the excruciating story of Joe Stewart, a 55-year-old Mississippian, who waited 600 days for a Social Security Disability Insurance hearing before an administrative law judge. In 2013, Stewart, a former carpenter, developed severe chronic pain because of a compressed vertebra and a pinched nerve in his lower spine, which left him unable to engage in any full-time work.

He is not the only one in such dire circumstances. In the state of Mississippi, there are 42,332 people just like him, waiting on average 591 days for their cases to be heard by a Judge. Meanwhile, because they cannot work they have exhausted all financial sources and have insufficient means to pay housing and medical costs.  Unfortunately, many will perish while waiting.

In Rhode Island, the situation is slightly less grim with an average hearing wait time of 335 days and an average processing time of 359 days. Still, after a wait of nearly two years, only 38% of cases are approved.

25 People From the List Die Each Day

Mr. Stewart’s story, excruciating though it may be, is just a drop in the ocean. Nationally, more than 1 million people are waiting for their ALJ hearing. The national average waiting time is 583 days, but in almost 50% of offices, it surpasses 600 days. In the particular case of 14 offices – which affects 111,296 claimants – the waiting time exceeds 700 days.

For many applicants, the current average waiting time is simply too long. As reported by The Washington Post, 18,701 people have died while waiting for a judge’s decision in the last two years. This translates into roughly 25 people a day or a little more than 1 person an hour. As the backlog of cases grows year by year, so will the number of people who will pass away before their hearing. In a letter to the Washington Post, Oregon state Senator Ron Wyden lamented, “what’s especially sad about this situation is that every single person on the waiting list has spent years or even decades paying into the Social Security system in the hope that, should a day come when they would no longer be able to provide for themselves because of circumstances beyond their control, they would be able to tap into this emergency resource.” This hope is now proving to be false for millions of Americans. The system has completely failed the thousands who died while waiting for their hearing.

The reasons for the backlog are complex. In the recent years, there have been some external factors which have aggravated the already overloaded system. Among these is a new regulation which increases the amount of medical evidence that must be examined, and a 2011 scandal which resulted in the maximum number of cases a judge is allowed to hear dropping from 12 per week to 10 per week. In part two of this article, we will analyze those factors and explore potential solutions to the problem. We will also offer practical suggestions for those who need to apply for Social Security disability benefits and want to avoid the backlog.