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SSA transfers disability appeals cases to cut backlog

The Social Security Administration will transfer more than 15 percent of its disability appeals cases from its Baltimore office to other cities in an effort to relieve what has become the third-worst processing delay in the nation, the agency said Friday.

About 1,800 disability appeals cases from Central Maryland will now be heard by administrative law judges in Virginia, easing a backlog in Baltimore that has required claimants to wait 17 months on average to have their cases considered.

The decision comes weeks after Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger demanded that the Woodlawn-based agency explain why the Baltimore office is faring worse than others in addressing long-standing delays. There were 11,652 cases pending in Baltimore at the end of May, up more than 25 percent from 2012.

Transferring cases "means we will have over 1,800 people who will be helped now," said Ruppersberger, a Baltimore County Democrat. "It's a positive step, but we still want to know why Baltimore had longer wait times."

The delays at issue occur in the second — or appeals — phase of a disability claim, after a person has been denied benefits by a Social Security official. That initial process can take six months to a year.

Claimants who are denied disability benefits after an appeals hearing may seek a third review from the agency's Appeals Council, a process that can take another year.

About 1,000 of the longest-delayed cases on appeal in Baltimore will be transferred to Roanoke, Va., and 800 will go to Norfolk.

A spokesman said the agency will also rely more on national hearings centers, including one in Baltimore, formed to reduce backlogs in local offices. People making claims will not have to visit those offices in person but can appear before a judge via video teleconference.

Social Security serves nearly 57 million beneficiaries nationally, including more than 12 million disabled workers, spouses and children. The average monthly disability benefit is $1,130.

The agency has taken steps to reduce the backlog and had success from 2009 to 2011. But officials say recent federal budget cuts handed down by Congress have worsened the situation. The delays have been the subject of congressional hearings.

"Over the past three years, we received an average of nearly a billion dollars less than what the president requested for our administrative budget," Social Security spokesman William "BJ" Jarrett said. "That level of underfunding has presented us with significant challenges in providing the public the level of service that it deserves."

One of the biggest problems, Jarrett and outside observers have said, is that the agency is struggling to replace retiring judges.

Three years ago, the Social Security Administration expected that it would reduce the national disability backlog to 525,000 by the current fiscal year. But the agency's inspector general reported in April that the goal was unrealistic. Auditors set a new goal of 668,127.

Social Security has been operating without a confirmed commissioner since Michael J. Astrue, an appointee of President George W. Bush, left early last year. The White House has declined to say when — or whether — President Barack Obama will nominate a replacement. Given the politics surrounding Social Security, any nominee would likely face a contentious Senate confirmation process.

Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin, a former Maryland state official, has received praise for leading the agency through a period of budget cuts. But some observers say the agency would be better served by a permanent leader.

Matthew Backus, who spoke this month at a news conference on the issue organized by Ruppersberger, said Friday that the decision to transfer cases is welcome news. The 49-year-old Brooklyn man suffers from seizures and had a stroke about three years ago.

"Maybe it will help them catch up," he said.

Still, Backus said, there are deeper problems with the process.

The former security worker said a seizure in 2011 caused him to lose control of his van and crash into a dump truck at 70 mph. He has filed for bankruptcy and is getting by on welfare and food stamps.

Backus said he was denied disability benefits because the Social Security Administration found that he was capable of working. He said he applied for an emergency hearing last June and finally had an appeals hearing this month.

He's waiting for a decision.

"I lost everything. I'm basically homeless," he said. "It's a really, really screwed-up system."

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