WORTH, Texas ó Coming to grips with never again being
able to work because of a debilitating disease on injury
can gnaw at oneís self-worth.
51-year-old John Tovar of Arlington never expected his
spiral into full-on depression would come as a result of
waiting Ö and waiting Ö and waiting Ö just for the
opportunity to state his case to qualify for Social
Security disability benefits.
Fort Worth, and across the nation, the system is
backlogged to the point of near-absurdity. Local
applicants can wait up to two years for a hearing before
a judge, with many cities facing longer waits. A hearing
is scheduled after applicants have already been denied
ó as most typically initially are ó a process in
itself that can take up to eight months.
so as the bureaucratic clock creeps toward a hearing,
many applicants are faced, month after month, with
slashed household income, dwindling or drained savings
accounts and often no option left but to pile car
payments, mortgage payments, the electricity bill and
prescriptions and groceries on to credit cards.
for disability was a last resort for me," said
Tovar, who suffers from diabetes, nerve damage and
carpal tunnel syndrome. "Thatís really one of the
main reasons I did this because weíve been a
two-income family for the longest time, and now my wife
is the only one working. It makes me feel pretty
worthless. What kind of took me aback was when they
finally set up the final hearing, they said it would be
anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
would it be 12 to 18 months?"
short answer is a lack of appropriate funding of Social
Security by Congress.
just a lack of staff and itís tied directly to a lack
of appropriations," said prominent disability
attorney Charles Hall, whose law firm is based in
Raleigh, N.C. "And it may get worse in the course
of next year depending on what happens with
appropriations in the budget office."
Security offices nationwide, including the downtown Fort
Worth location, are understaffed and underfunded to
handle the carousel of thousands of cases submitted each
year. In Fort Worth, 10 administrative law judges are
tasked with 5,899 pending disability cases, according to
figures compiled by the Social Security Administration.
average wait in Fort Worth for a hearing is 483 business
days, or nearly two years. While it seems excessive, itís
actually one of the speedier rates in the state and
country. San Antonioís average wait is 527 days;
downtown Dallas is 544; the Rio Grade Valley is a
whopping 622 days. Applicants in Miami wait for a
hearing on average 759 days, or close to three years.
than 1 million Americans are awaiting a hearing with an
average wait of two years.
the last couple of years, weíve seen applications
decline, yet the backlog went from unacceptable to
extremely unacceptable," said Mike Stein of Allsup,
which represents people attempting to qualify for
disability benefits. "I say that as an advocate of
people simply asking for a yes or no from the
government. Citizens should have some money in the bank
for a rainy day. But when you get to the hearing level,
who has that kind of rainy day fund?"
Sam Johnson, R-Texas, a member of the House Ways and
Means Committee where he serves as the chairman of the
Social Security Subcommittee and sits on the Health
Subcommittee, said the status quo is
becoming chairman, Johnson has held 18 hearings on the
disability benefits program, including as recently as
Sept. 6. In February, Johnson called on President Donald
Trump to nominate a Social Security Commissioner, a
position that remains unfilled.
make matters worse, these long wait times make getting
back to work even harder for those who donít qualify
for benefits. The status quo is unacceptable,"
Johnson said in a statement to the Star-Telegram.
"Thatís why I recently held a hearing on this
issue, where we discussed with the Social Security
Administration what actions itís taking to address
this issue and what obstacles itís facing.
Security needs a Senate-confirmed Commissioner who can
lead the agency and focus on providing the service
Americans expect and deserve."
and his wife, Mina, have exhausted their rainy day fund,
and then some.
years after nerve damage in his feet forced Tovar to
leave his job at Poly-America in Grand Prairie ó where
he worked for 20 years, and where his wife, Mina, 47,
continues to work ó Tovar reluctantly applied for
disability benefits in August 2016.
just thought heíd surely eventually be able to return
to work or find a job that didnít require him to be on
his feet for hours a time. When the nerve damage spread
to his hands and arms, Tovar lost all ability to work.
was denied disability benefits in July and requested a
hearing in August. It could be two years before he gets
watching Mina wake up at 4:30 a.m. for work, then return
to take care of the household, all on her salary of
about $55,000, preys on his soul as much as the
diabetes, neuropathy and carpal tunnel diminish his
the way, he cashed in his 401(k) to pay off the
remainder of the mortgage and clear credit card debt.
But with only Minaís salary, rising medical and
prescription costs are causing those credit card
balances to balloon.
a lucky one," said Hall. "All things
considered, thatís a very bad situation, but many are
in worse situations."
referenced a woman he represents who had a hearing
Monday. Because of her predicament, she lives in a house
with no electricity or functioning plumbing. Hardship
cases are typically expedited. Even so, this woman was
two years into her claim. She will likely wait another
four to five months for a decision, and if she wins,
another two to three months to receive her benefits.
hardship cases mean a longer wait for those like Tovar.
wait so long they die before their hearing. Last year,
7,400 people on wait lists were dead, according to a
report by Social Securityís inspector general.
benefits are not meant to replace salary, but rather to
lend a helping hand. The average benefit is $1,037 a
month. It wonít help the Tovars pay down their credit
cards again, but it could at least help them from piling
on excessive debt.
been thinking about that, too; what am I going to do if
I get turned down?" Tovar said. "My condition
is deteriorating. Iím just wondering what Iím going
to do if it doesnít go through. Eighteen months from
now, itís going to be worse."
claims that finally reach the hearing stage are
declined. Of the 4,513 claims that went before a judge
last fiscal year, 38 percent were denied.
Fort Worth woman who has had breast cancer, has
undergone heart surgery and suffers from chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease that limits her lung
functionality to 54 percent, filed her initial
disability claim two years ago. She isnít scheduled
for her hearing until early 2018.
said she is "appalled at the process" and was
too scared to be quoted by name for this story because
she feared jeopardizing her chances at winning her
claim, or delaying the process further. She said she has
"has always worked and paid my taxes," but is
now in "serious financial problems." If not
for her ex-husband helping her pay bills, she said she
would have lost her house through this process.
the system more efficient simply isnít in the cards
until Congress chooses to appropriately fund Social
Security so it can hire more administrative staff and
problem is not enough funding from Congress. The local
people work hard and work long days," said a Fort
Worth disability attorney who asked not to use her name
because she represents clients in front of the judges.
local office is trying to do what they can, but Social
Security has always been that third wheel. Congress
always finds reasons why they donít want to fund