Benefit Backlog: Judge shortage leaves disability applicants with few options

Susan Babis works in her kitchen in Belle. Babis has been waiting since July 2016 for a hearing regarding her Social Security disability claim. (Garrett Bergquist/KRCG 13)

Every day, Susan Babis wonders how she's going to pay even the smallest bills.

Babis lives with schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder and said she is unable to hold a job. Even a $3 co-pay for her medications forces her to rely on friends.

"It's an inconvenience because it's inconveniencing them to have to come over here," she said. "I know how it makes them feel, and it makes me feel bad."

Babis applied for Social Security disability benefits in July 2016. More than a year and a half later, she still hasn't had a hearing to determine whether she'll receive them. The government denied her application and she filed an appeal in January 2017. Earlier this year, she was informed she was scheduled for a hearing this September.

Babis isn't alone.

The Social Security Administration's own data show an average wait time of 16 months at the agency's facilities in Springfield and Kansas City, 18 months in Columbia and 20 months in St. Louis. Jefferson City attorney Russ Swanigan, who specializes in Social Security disability cases, said those numbers measure from when applicants appealed initial denials of claims. Swanigan said about two-thirds of disability claims are denied at first. Applicants have a right to appeal. By the time this happens, he said they've already spent a good 3 months on average trying to get their claims.

Swanigan said the wait times stem from a heavy caseload and a shortage of judges to hear each case. At any given time, he said more than a million people nationwide are awaiting a hearing. There are 1,500 Social Security administrative law judges in the entire country, of which about 50 work in Missouri. Social Security Administration data showed more than 131,000 Missourians received disability benefits in 2016, the most recent year for which data are available.

Swanigan said the Social Security Administration has implemented measures in the past to cut down on the backlog. Staff attorneys will review cases and automatically approve any that clearly meet requirements for disability benefits. He said these so-called on-the-record approvals have dropped off in recent years because attorneys have become overwhelmed with cases.

"Frankly, not only do we have a shortage of judges, but we also have a shortage of staff to support the judges," he said.

While applicants wait for benefits, Swanigan said they have few other sources of income. Babis said she gets Medicaid benefits and food stamps. She also has rental and utility assistance. Medicaid takes care of her medications, but she still has to borrow money to cover her co-pays. Food stamps cover food items but not non-food items such as toilet paper.

"There's not even a little bit of income coming in while I'm waiting to get the things I need," she said. "Any cash I get, I have to ask for."

Her mental health issues further complicate matters. Babis said she has been in and out of psychiatric care. In February, she had to go to a mental health facility in Rolla after panic attacks kept her from sleeping for four days. This adds to her medical bills. Babis said a local church started providing her with necessities other programs don't offer.

Swanigan said he personally knows many of the judges in the Columbia Social Security office. He said those judges are doing everything they can to streamline the process.

"There are no easy fixes, other than to devote a tremendous amount more money and staffing," he said, adding many other federal agencies are clamoring for the same thing.

If she can't get a disability benefit, Babis said she has no other option than to re-file.

"If I feel like I'm not capable to hold down a job, a consistent job," she said, "then I'll file again."

The Social Security Administration turned down a request for an on-camera interview for this story. It also never responded to a request for the number of Missourians currently awaiting disability claims.

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