For those involved in the process of applying for disability, it is a well-known fact that the appeal process after receiving a denial of social security benefits can take a long time. In the last several years, the wait has become even longer, often over a year. There are many reasons for the increase in cases, some of which are the aging of the baby boomer generation, and the federal budget cuts imposed in an effort to reduce the national debt. Regardless of the reasons for the problem, the current head of the Social Security Administration (SSA), Michael Astrue, has decided to do what he can to reduce the average wait time for disability hearings. One of the ways he has tangibly succeeded in doing this is by opening a new appeals hearing center in downtown Fayetteville, North Carolina.
When Astrue came into leadership of the SSA in 2007, the appeals system was so backlogged that there were some cases that had been in the system for over three years, a statistic he considered unacceptable in a country like the United States. He made it a point to ensure that these oldest cases were processed immediately, and set about to improve the SSA’s data systems and workforce so that the waiting period for appeals would decrease.
One of the areas with the most backlogged cases and longest average wait time was the Fayetteville, North Carolina area. Four years ago, when Astrue started his six-year term, the average wait time for disability cases on this area was around 700 days, well beyond the 2008 national average peak of roughly 1 ½ years. The Administration acted by opening a temporary office in the Fayetteville, NC area last year, which has just transitioned to its permanent location within the last month. Since these changes, the average wait time in the Fayetteville area has dropped more than 50%, to under 300 days. The Fayetteville office features the latest technological advancements, including video conferencing that enables out of county clients to communicate with the office without traveling. This is especially time-saving, considering that the office services the surrounding 17 counties.
Although these represent vast improvements that have been made in the last few years, there are still changes and reforms that need to be made to further decrease wait times for appeals. Astrue’s goal is to bring the average waiting period down to 9 months. Considering the budgeting cuts facing the SSA in the last few years, this is a difficult task. Besides a lack of funds for opening new hearing centers, the SSA nationwide has imposed hiring freezes. Streamlining the process with new technology and better systems can only do so much; the current offices are still experiencing too much case volume. Although budget cuts pose an obstacle to improving the SSA’s system, Astrue is still determined to do what is feasible. He fully agrees that the Social Security System is in need of change, hopes that Congress starts working together putting into action some of the proposed steps to make the necessary changes to the system, instead of continuing to debate and let politics get in the way.