Disability benefits to be speeded up


WASHINGTON -- In an effort to improve a system that can leave the disabled waiting years for benefits, the Social Security Administration unveiled a plan yesterday that it hopes will provide help within six weeks of when people apply.

Under the new blueprint, applicants could sit down and discuss their cases with Social Security officials before decisions were made -- a sharp change from the way the system works today.

The Woodlawn-based agency's management of the nation's $40 billion disability programs has faced sharp attacks on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in recent years. Critics say some applicants have lost their homes or even committed suicide before decisions were made.

The Social Security Administration slashed its work force by one-fifth in the 1980s and is unable to cope with a tidal wave of claims for benefits. With a backlog of 700,000 cases, applicants face an average wait of five months before an initial decision is reached. If a claim is denied -- as 60 percent are -- the appeals process can stretch on for nearly two years.

Appeals would be resolved within five months under the plan, said Phil Gambino, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. In certain cases, Mr. Gambino said, a determination would be made the same day a Social Security field office receives a new claim, and a check could be mailed within three days.

"Our current antiquated disability process has not changed in any important way since the beginning of the program in the 1950s," said Social Security Commissioner Shirley S. Chater. "The process is now broken and must be rebuilt."

Under the proposal, applicants would meet with a disability claims manager when they first filed for help. That same manager would evaluate medical information and guide the case through SSA's often complicated bureaucracy. The manager would also decide whether to approve the application.

If the claim was likely to end in a denial, SSA would contact the applicant to explain the situation and provide him with an opportunity to submit more evidence and have another interview. Currently, applicants cannot meet with the SSA officials in charge of their cases until they reach the appeals process.

If a claim was denied, the applicant would have 60 days to appeal.

Although agency officials are hopeful about the plan, the overhaul will face scrutiny from frequent agency critics, including Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the New York Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The Social Security Administration operates two disability programs: insurance for workers who become sick or injured and Supplemental Security Income for poor children and adults who can qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.

For the next 60 days, Commissioner Chater will be seeking public comment on the plan. The blueprint was developed by an 18-member panel made up of longtime federal and state disability workers, along with employee and union representatives.

Often critical of SSA management in the past, union officials praised the agency yesterday for seeking their help at the beginning of the panel's work.

"They usually bring us in towards the end," said Al Levy, executive vice president of Local 1923 of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 16,000 workers in Woodlawn. "This is the first time they've brought us in at the very beginning."

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