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N4T Investigators: Benefits backlog - KVOA | KVOA.com | Tucson, Arizona

N4T Investigators: Benefits backlog

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Tucson - "I've worked since I was 13. This is devastating and to my family."

Jennifer, who doesn't want to be identified for privacy reasons, is talking about not being able to work and her current 20 month wait just to get a hearing to appeal her Social Security Disability Insurance denials. The 45-year old Pima County resident has Crohn's disease, chronic Anemia, causing extreme fatigue, Fibromyalgia, and her colon was removed 10 years ago. Jennifer says she wishes she could return to her job as an X-ray tech, but is unable to, due to her health. "I loved my career, " Jennifer told the News 4 Tucson Investigators. "I worked very hard for it. And not being able to do it anymore is very difficult."

Jennifer was twice denied disability benefits by Social Security. The agency said, "We have determined that your condition is not severe enough to keep you from working." So the third and next step is an in-person appeal hearing an office on the city's west side, called the "Office of Disability Adjudication and Review," known as ODAR. Jennifer requested her hearing in Nov. 2015, and it hasn't even been scheduled. Her physical issues are complicated by financial stress. "Not being able to pay all your bills, you have to pick and choose, depend on family to help out."

Joane Hallinan is an attorney who focuses on disability cases. She says the average wait for an appeal hearing is 18 months. 'We've seen a lot of our clients lose their homes, lose their cars, lose their families," Hallinan said. She attributes the long wait time is due to federal funding cuts that overloaded judges, and, more baby boomers applying. Hallinan knows well that there are people who apply for disability who can work and are faking it, but says of the Jennifer and others she represents, "These are people that we truly believe would be working if they could.  Otherwise, we're not representing them at the hearing level. We just aren't."

Rep. Martha McSally (R-Arizona) calls the 18-month average wait "ridiculous". She told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, "If you have no income there's not a lot of people that can go 18 months without having anything to pay rent and food and medicine."

McSally has written a letter to Social Security Acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill, pointing out that cases in the Tucson office are approved on second appeal 56% of the time. McSally said  "We're simply asking them to look at it. Hey, we're glad that 56 percent are approved positively, but that would indicate to you that maybe the first or second review should've had a positive answer in the first place." 

The Social Security Administration declined an interview. In a statement, the Regional Communications Director Patricia Raymond said, 

  "We share your concern about the hearings wait times, and regret the hardships that the long wait time can present.  Due to   limited resources we are challenged in our ability to hear disability cases as quickly as we would like.  Reducing the                 backlog of pending hearings and reducing the wait time for a hearing decision remains one of the top priorities of our            agency.We developed a plan for Compassionate And Responsive Service (CARES) in January 2016 to address the growing  backlog of pending hearings and increasing wait times for a hearing decision.  The CARES plan provides a multi-year and  multi-layered approach for eliminating our hearings backlog that focuses on critical aspects of our hearings process such as   business process improvements, information technology innovations, and staffing. We remain committed to public service and the people we serve."

We asked Jennifer, "If you could talk to the powers-that-be about this delay in getting your appeal heard, what would you tell them?" She said, "To please, please, look at it, review it. I understand the doubt but truly I have put everything together. I've had all sorts of medical reviews." 

Applicants chances of winning their appeal hearing are better when they have an attorney. The lawyers only get paid if the applicant's case is approved. Rep. McSally says her staff is looking into Jennifer's long wait to see if they can help expedite her hearing, and say they've expedited 10 cases so far this year.

If you have any story you'd like us to investigate, email us at investigators@kvoa.com or call our tip line at 520-955-4444. 

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