Proposed SSA changes07/05/03 12:47 PMI was sent this article and I thought I would share. Ideas offered for disability system N.C. congressman suggests eliminating steps in the review process to speed up Social Security applications While no one has figured out yet how to fix the government's program for providing benefits to disabled workers, several of North Carolina's representatives in Congress have some ideas about how it might work better. A few, such as Democratic Rep. Mike McIntyre of Lumberton, have specific suggestions to speed up the process for people seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration. Others say Social Security needs additional employees to handle more than 3 million applications nationally a year. Some are waiting for Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart to unveil her long-promised reform plan, which likely will be the subject of congressional hearings. They all agree, though, that fixing the problem won't be easy. "When people are injured and can't work, it not only impacts their income but it impacts their entire family, it impacts them mentally," said Rep. Frank Ballance, a Democrat from Warrenton. "That's why it's such a tremendous problem. "Turning the battleship around is a tremendous challenge." The News & Observer reported this month about the months -- and often years -- that it can take disabled workers to get their benefits. While they wait, workers struggle to cope with no income. Many fall into depression as they lose much of what they've worked years for, including their homes. While the problem is not unique to North Carolina, it is worse here than in all but a handful of states. Social Security contracts with agencies in each state to make the initial decision on whether individuals are totally disabled and, therefore, entitled to benefits. Although officials in each state use the same federal guidelines, a much smaller percentage of applicants in North Carolina are approved initially than in 39 other states. For some of those denied, it means they will have to wait longer before Social Security will approve them for benefits. McIntyre is familiar with the problem. Before he was elected to Congress in 1996, he represented people seeking disability benefits as part of his law practice. "I've seen the suffering," he said. "I've seen the delays, the red tape that they have to go through." McIntyre said the process could be sped up by eliminating the first level of appeal, known as reconsideration, which is also handled by the state agencies. In North Carolina, only 14 percent of those appeals are approved. "Eliminating this stage would help move cases immediately to the hearing level," he said. "Reconsideration seems to be a rubber stamp on the initial decision." McIntyre also suggested eliminating a review process that Social Security uses to check on the accuracy of benefits decisions made by state agencies. He said Social Security virtually always agrees with the state action. "This so-called quality review process is really just another delay tactic," he said. "What may have had good intentions has led to unnecessary delays." Rep. Brad Miller, a Democrat from Raleigh, is still in his first term. But he has already gotten a a good feel for the size of the problem. His office is working on 412 requests for help from constituents -- and 54 of them have to do with problems constituents are having with Social Security. Miller said he believes that Social Security employees are working hard, but that they are overwhelmed. "They have a huge amount of work to do," he said. "It certainly sounds like they need more warm bodies. It should be a tough standard to get disability, but it shouldn't take forever." Other members of Congress agree that Social Security needs additional employees, particularly in regional hearing offices that handle the second appeal. The average wait for a hearing at the Raleigh hearing office is 13 1/2 months, the longest in North Carolina. Rep. Mel Watt, a Charlotte Democrat, said he recently met with officials from Social Security who noted that President Bush's budget proposal calls for 1,300 additional employees for Social Security. But Watt said the official told him Social Security needs 5,000 more employees. "We've just got to keep trying and keep pushing the system at every point," Watt said. "When we cut taxes and have revenue problems, it makes it more difficult to do that." Rep. Howard Coble, a Greensboro Republican, says he wants to see what Barnhart is able to do with the program. But he also cautioned against efforts to speed up the process too much, which he said could make it easier for fraudulent claims to be approved. "If you weren't concerned about ruling out fraudulent claims, you could move along in more accelerated manner," he said. Barnhart has not responded to repeated requests from The N&O for an interview. Social Security officials did not respond to questions last week about when Barnhart will release her reform proposal. In North Carolina, officials who oversee the program say there is little they can do to change it. Although the initial work is done by state employees, they are paid with federal money and are operating under federal guidelines. "We certainly want people to get their benefits as quickly as possible if they deserve to have them," said Lynda McDaniel, an assistant secretary at the state Department of Health and Human Services. "It is frustrating because of the lack of control [the state has] over that system." But McDaniel said the state can tweak its disability operation. She is waiting now for the results of a study by the Office of State Budget and Management on how the state might improve the process it uses to handle disability claims. "When you process 145,000 applications in a year, if you can cut a few minutes off, that begins making a real difference," she said.