MIAMI — Diabetes, arthritis and open-heart surgery have kept Sherice Bennett from working, but she can't afford her medicine and became homeless while waiting for more than two years for a chance to convince a judge that she qualifies for federal disability benefits.
Maria Ruiz also is waiting to appeal her denial; meanwhile, she's been in and out of psychiatric wards since being diagnosed as bipolar, and hasn't been able to buy her meds since August.
Still others die waiting. One man had already been dead for two months this summer before his request for a hearing reached the desk of Miami Judge Thomas Snook. He ultimately approved the claim and the man's spouse will collect his benefits.
Overburdened administrative judges are working through huge caseloads of these appeals all over America, but Miami has the country's longest average wait for a hearing, at 22 months. And while they wait, many slip into poverty, burdening their families and dragging down the economy. Experts blame aging baby boomers for the backlog, which piled up after the Social Security Administration got $1 billion less in funding than it sought for more staff.
The roughly $126 billion Social Security disability program is funded through payroll taxes and keeps many of America's most vulnerable people off the streets by sending an average $1,165 a monthly check to about 9 million permanently unemployed who qualified through prior work history. More than 8 million others qualify because they are low-income and receive an average $540 a month — both groups require medical proof that they can't work.
A million hearings are pending, and it makes sense for them to keep pushing: Just under half of applicants eventually get the benefits, including millions who convince an administrative law judge on appeal that their disability makes a job impossible.
The Social Security Administration says two new judgeships are planned for Miami to lighten this load, but it's unclear if any candidates want to work there.
"The system doesn't work," said Bennett, 58, whose son quit college to help her pay rent after she was evicted. "No one should have to wait two years for a hearing. We have criminals that wait less time than that. These are people that are sick and have paid into the system."
Delays in other cities are nearly as bad: Brooklyn, New York; Spokane, Washington; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Fort Myers, Florida, have 20-month waits. Atlanta, Charlotte, North Carolina, Cincinnati, Baltimore and Chattanooga, Tennessee, are close behind with 19 months. The shortest wait time is eight months in Fort Smith, Arkansas. The national average is about one year and four months, according to the Social Security Administration, and petitioners typically wait another four to five months for a decision after the hearing.
Three years ago, the agency tried to resolve these appeals more quickly by limiting caseloads, but then judges felt pressure to approve more cases, and since approvals take far less time and paperwork than denials, the program's overall cost soared. In a scathing review last year, the House Oversight and Government Reform committee alleged that hundreds of judges were rubber-stamping approvals and costing taxpayers unnecessary billions. Four judges alone cost taxpayers $11 billion since 2005, according to the committee's investigation.
Fort Myers Judge Larry Butler said judges who took the time to comb over sometimes hundreds of pages of medical documents to reach a decision were put on the radar for discipline for not approving cases fast enough.
"The people who are not generating a high volume of cases were the judges who were doing their jobs ... and those judges tend to have a lower payment rate," Butler said.
Seattle-based attorney John Chihak, whose firm handles 600 cases a year, says these judges "are in fact every bit subject to the capricious whims of the process as the subjects who have to wait two years to get a hearing."
The Obama administration said there's no indication judges are rubber-stamping cases. Overall approval rates have decreased from 56 percent in 2011 to 44 percent this year, according to the agency, but some of the raw data was not made public and could not be verified.
The agency's current goal is to reduce the wait to 270 days or less by 2020. A pre-hearing triage program has begun, and the hiring of 400 more judges is planned by 2018.Video hearings also can reduce backlogs as judges with lighter caseloads in other states share the burden.
JoNel Newman, who directs the University of Miami's Health Rights Clinic, is suing in federal court on behalf of Bennett, Ruiz and 10 other applicants, alleging unreasonably long waits. "It's just insurmountable the bureaucracy, the wait and the paperwork," she said.
In Buffalo, paralegal JoAnn Lewandowski says that for most of her clients, a disability check would be a lifeline.
"You've got people who are terminally ill and those benefits could mean so much more to them," she said. "I don't see that it's going to change drastically anytime soon."
Judge Randy Frye in North Carolina said additional funding and new policies will make a difference.
"I know that someone waiting for two years can't see it yet, but things are happening and I think it's all positive," said Frye, who is president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people like Ruiz are desperate. The Miami woman, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression, has been in and out of hospital psychiatric wards. Her disability applications have been rejected at least three times, and she can't afford her medicine.
"I'm struggling more than ever now," said Ruiz.