By Claudia Vargas
Starting Saturday, anyone in Pennsylvania who is denied federal disability benefits and wants to appeal will go through a new step that the Social Security Administration says is meant to reduce a large case backlog — but that advocates fear will do the opposite.
For the last 10 years, Pennsylvania and nine other states had a special exception to the rule that a person denied disability benefits after an initial application had to submit to a second examiner for “reconsideration” before appealing to an administrative law judge. Pennsylvanians could skip that extra step.
Even so, wait times for an appeal hearing with a judge were averaging more than two years in some areas, including Philadelphia, as of late 2017.
Last year, federal officials decided to bring back the secondary review in hopes of getting appellants a quicker decision and lowering the number of cases awaiting judicial review.
“Reinstating reconsideration restores a national, unified disability process and consistent due process for disability claimants across the country,” said Daniel O’Connor, the Philadelphia regional spokesperson for the Social Security Administration. “It also leads to earlier allowance decisions for some at a lower administrative cost to taxpayers.”
Advocates for people seeking Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are concerned, though, that reconsideration will only add more time to the total process.
“Very few people will likely win at this stage, so most applicants — around 85 percent — will have to appeal again,” said Jen Burdick, an attorney with Philadelphia Community Legal Services, which represents people who are denied benefits.
SSI is federal aid for those who are poor and disabled, blind, or elderly. It pays 8.1 million people nationwide an average of $526 a month, often used for rent, groceries, and other basics.
After an Inquirer article last year on Philadelphia having the longest wait time in the country for appeals, the federal government added administrative judges to the two Philadelphia appeal offices. Wait times significantly decreased by the end of the year. As of March, the average wait time for an appeal hearing in Philadelphia was 13 months, and the judicial backlog was down to 3,000 cases in one Philadelphia office and 3,500 in the second. In November 2017 each office had about 10,000 cases pending.
Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Pa.) said Wednesday that the reconsideration step is “adding more red tape” to the process.
“It may prevent some people from being able to access the benefits to which they are entitled,” Evans said.
O’Connor said that 130 employees will be hired to help process the new reconsideration appeals in Pennsylvania.