Turned down for federal disability payments, thousands die waiting for appeals to be heard

by Mark Johnson

It isn’t easy to be patient when you can’t work and you’re in pain, as Christine Morgan knows all too well.

Her chronic pain comes from fibromyalgia. Morgan, 60, also has spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spaces within the spine that pinches the nerves, most often in the lower back and neck. To top it off, she is diabetic, has kidney disease, high blood pressure and depression.

Yet Morgan has been turned down for Social Security Disability Insurance –  twice. “They sent me a letter that said I wasn’t disabled,” she said.

Morgan appealed her most recent denial in August 2017. Her appeal wasn’t heard until more than a year later, on Nov. 7, and she still hasn’t received a ruling. She is among more than 800,000 Americans waiting for their appeals to be decided. Each year thousands die waiting for an answer.

In fiscal year 2016, 8,699 Americans died on the disability insurance waiting list. That number rose to 10,002 in 2017.

My editorial comments:  In the early ’80s, the Reagen administration dumped 60,000 people off SSI in Michigan, and a group of activists (maybe 150) trained to represent these individuals in appeals hearings. I was working at MPAS at the time and did maybe a dozen hearings for persons with DD over a two year period. I won them all eventually, not because I was a great advocate, but because the denials were clearly and obviously done for spite. 

Because MPAS was representing a lot of people in these appeals hearings,  we ordered the Policy Manual from SSA (called the POMS) so that it would be easier to prepare for hearings and other SSI advocacy activities. It was a paper version in binders and occupied two entire bookshelves that were 7 feet tall and 4 feet wide. We had to update 150 new pages a day. It was a true monument to bureaucracy. Now, the POMS is online.

Sometimes I would scan the index for interesting policies that might have some bearing on cases in which I was involved. I saw one that told local district SSA offices what to do if a person in the appeals process died before they received a decision. It was interesting because it was entirely focused on the public relations problem that might result if a story about such a situation got into local papers.

The reality today is much worse. Two-thirds of initial applications are denied even though half of these denials will be overturned during the appeals process. This is no accident. The system is deliberately set up to deny people that are eligible under SSA law through the use of local administrative procedures that are more restrictive than the law.

The SSI system is only accidentally providing benefits. It is currently designed to deny people benefits wherever it can without creating a political backlash. If district offices and assessment systems used procedures that more closely matched the actual law, the waiting times on appeals would be cut in half. Instead, the system puts various band-aids on the waiting list problem and demands more money that it knows it will never get. It does this because it views the waiting periods (up to 2 and a half years) as a device to discourage appellants or to outwait an appellants life. Death, as SSI has discovered, is a remarkably effective way to discourage appeals.

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