Four Philly-area congressmen demand action on SSI backlog

Adrianne Gunter sits on the steps outside her Philadelphia apartment holding a steel cane that helps her get around due to her Multiple Sclerosis. Gunter waited 788 days for a hearing in Philadelphia, all while her Multiple Sclerosis worsened and she continued to be unemployed and dependent on her mother.

Four Philadelphia-area congressmen sent a letter Monday to the acting chief of the Social Security Administration asking that the agency address the sometimes years-long delays for Philadelphia-area residents seeking disability-benefits hearings.

The letter to acting Commissioner Nancy Berryhill, signed by U.S. Reps. Brendan Boyle, Dwight Evans, Robert Brady, and Donald Norcross, all Democrats, came in response to an article in Sunday’s Inquirer that reported that applicants in the city are waiting an average of 26 months for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) appeal hearings. That’s the longest average waiting time for any city in the country. Applicants in adjacent counties in South Jersey and Pennsylvania also are experiencing average wait times of 20 months or longer.

“While we are certainly sympathetic to the budgetary constraints of your agency, we are deeply concerned by the number of individuals subject to undue stress and health risks brought on by reports of bureaucratic inefficiency,” the letter said.

Across the country, more than 1 million people are waiting for appeal hearings after being denied disability benefits. Philadelphia’s two hearing offices each have 5,000 pending cases. The Elkins Park and South Jersey offices each have about 10,000 people waiting for decisions.

The administration has acknowledged it has a problem and said it does not have enough administrative law judges and support staff to handle the backlog, which started years ago. Hiring freezes made it hard to catch up.

“We therefore request that your agency detail the number of such staff members that would be necessary to begin to reverse this problem,” Monday’s letter said.

The administration previously said its goal was to hire 250 judges each year for three consecutive years starting in 2016. But in the last two years combined, only 396 judges were hired.

The congressmen also asked Berryhill how much funding would be required to address the backlog “so that we may do all we can to fight for this additional funding for fiscal year 2019.”

The Inquirer  story highlighted the wait for Adrianne Gunter, a 33-year-old West Philadelphia native and University of the Arts graduate, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2015. She waited 788 days – more than two years – for an SSI appeal hearing. Since her Dec. 13, 2017, hearing, she is still waiting for a decision.

“This is simply unconscionable,” Boyle, a Democrat whose district includes parts of Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County, tweeted Sunday. He vowed then to write a letter to the administration asking for improvements.

Brady and Evans issued a joint letter to Berryhill in August complaining about the long wait times and what they perceived as understaffing in the Philadelphia offices.

“We are writing with great concern about the staffing of the two main Social Security Office of Disability Adjudications and Review (ODAR) hearing offices serving our disabled constituents – constituents who are largely of low or no income,” the congressmen wrote, noting that the Philadelphia office had six judges and the Philadelphia East Office eight. “The understaffing at the two Philadelphia ODAR offices requires a prompt response.”

Stanley White, Brady’s chief of staff, said his office has yet to receive a response from Berryhill or the SSA.

The Philadelphia hearing office, however, has seven judges now.

Monday’s letter from the four congressmen also asks Berryhill for a meeting with her and her staff to discuss “specific needs and goals.”