Disability appeals take months, sometimes years, just for a hearing

Updated: Feb. 11, 2021 at 5:58 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - People are left waiting for years, sometimes even decades, to receive government benefits they’ve paid into their whole life.

Disability claimants who have their cases denied and have to go through the appeals process often have no idea when their case will finally be heard.

“I had a family member that was waiting on social security disability for eight years” Columbia resident Jimmie James said. “He received his social security disability and within two weeks he passed away.”

James applied for disability himself after four deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan left him with PTSD and a spinal disease. He was denied at first, just like 64 percent of people who apply, but eventually the South Carolinian won his appeal after ten months.

“My whole goal was to get out and still continue to work. So, when that ability was taken away from me, it makes you nervous because now you don’t know what you’re going do,” James said.

After an initial claim is denied, people applying for disability can appeal their case to an administrative law judge.

“The sickest of the sickest people typically will get approved at initial application but not always,” attorney George Piemonte said. “I have had many people with terminal cancer and other diseases that still ended up having to come to me for help because Social Security denies their claims.”

Piemonte is president of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives. When people are denied disability he helps represent them in front of an ALJ.

New data obtained by WBTV shows that the average wait time before getting a hearing in the Charlotte office is 284 days.

“And that’s just the time from when they request a hearing, that doesn’t include the time from when they first filed their application,” Piemonte said. “Right now from filing application to getting in front of ALJ, we’re probably in about the two year period.”

But that’s just the average.

“We’ve had many clients over the years pass away waiting for their hearing.” Piemonte said.

Records provided by NOSCCR show that as of December there were 2,660 disability cases that had been pending for more than 1,000 days.

Piemonte says many of these are likely cases that have never been transferred from paper files to electronic files and because no in-person hearings are being scheduled during the pandemic their cases are currently on hold.

Piemonte has one client who first filed two decades ago and because her files are paper, has been waiting for a hearing since January 2020.

“In 15 years (Social Security Administration) has not come up with a solution to handling paper files, and now those people are really paying the price,” Piemonte said.

WBTV reached out to the Social Security Administration to ask what they’re doing about these wait times and how they plan on handling paper case files.

A spokesperson wrote us back saying the agency has “made significant progress by reducing the average wait times by nearly 11 months since September 2017.”

Regarding paper cases the spokesperson wrote that they suspended paper-based workloads in March 2020 because of the pandemic and just in January the agency “resumed processing paper disability workloads in the hearing operation” by converting paper cases to an electronic format.

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