WASHINGTON — In an effort to ease the burden of being stricken with a debilitating condition, the Social Security Administration is expanding a program that fast-tracks disability claims by people who get serious illnesses such as cancer, early-onset Alzheimer’s and Lou Gehrig’s disease — claims that could take months or years to approve in the past.
While providing faster benefits, the program also is designed to ease the workload of an agency that has been swamped by disability claims since the economic recession a few years ago.
Disability claims are up by more than 20 percent from 2008. The Compassionate Allowances program approves many claims for a select group of conditions within a few days, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said. The program is being expanded Thursday to include a total of 200 diseases and conditions.
Many of the conditions are rare; all of them are so serious that people who suffer from them easily meet the government’s definition of being disabled, Astrue said. With proper documentation, these are relatively easy cases for the agency to decide, too easy to put through the usual time-consuming process that other applicants face, he said.
“Why for someone who is going to die within 15 months do we need 15 years of medical records?” Astrue said in an interview. “If somebody’s got a confirmed diagnosis of ALS, you know that in essence, it’s not only a disability, it’s a death sentence, and there is no use in burdening them with paperwork.”
High demand during the sour economy has made it difficult for Social Security to reduce disability claims backlogs and wait times for decisions. About 3.2 million people have applied for disability benefits this year, up from 2.6 million in 2008, the agency said.
Disability claims usually increase when the economy is bad because people who managed to work even though they had a disability lose their jobs and apply for benefits. Others who have disabilities may not qualify for benefits but apply anyway because they are unemployed and have nowhere else to turn.
Two-thirds of initial applications are rejected, according to the agency. If your benefit claim is rejected, you can appeal to an administrative law judge but the hearing process takes an average of 354 days to get a decision. In 2008, it took an average of 509 days, according to agency statistics.
Judge Randy Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, said judges have been working hard to reduce backlogs while some decide more than 500 cases a year. But, Frye said, his group was not consulted on the Compassionate Allowances program.