If you've been injured or are too sick to work, you can't afford to wait years to begin collecting Social Security disability checks. The two new hearing offices opening next week in Ohio — and two more in Michigan — will make the wait, while still difficult, at least a little more bearable.
The process for establishing a disability claim is tortuous. Processing the initial application can take three to six months. If the claim is turned down, having it reconsidered can take an additional three to six months.
But it's only after a claim has been denied twice that the process really bogs down. Nationally, there is a huge backlog of people waiting for hearings in front of an administrative law judge. On average, injured and sick workers wait 410 days to have an administrative law judge rule on their claims.
Closer to home, the wait is worse. In 2009, the average lag time for a hearing in one of Ohio's four offices was 591 days. In Michigan, it was 550 days. Some of the tougher cases — they number in the thousands nationally — take as long as 825 days. And in each case, that's on top of the year the claimant may have spent just getting to the hearing stage.
Next week, new offices will open in Toledo, Akron, Livonia, Mich., and Mt. Pleasant, Mich., increasing the number of hearing offices to six in Ohio and seven in Michigan. Within a few months, they should be making inroads into the backlog in both states.
Of course, the addition of 55 jobs in Toledo — 10 administrative law judges and 45 support staff — and a similar number in Akron, Livonia, and Mt. Pleasant will be welcome. But the ultimate goal is to reduce the national wait time from 410 days to 270.
Five national hearing centers already have opened, and 25 local centers are either open or planned. Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue says by next spring, the wait could be as short as 350 to 375 days.
In the best of times, having to wait two and a half years to find out whether you qualified for Social Security benefits would result in personal and financial hardship. But these are not the best of times, especially in Ohio and Michigan. Family incomes have been reduced by layoffs, furloughs, and pay cuts; state and local support services are strained.
The offices that are opening locally and nationally won't eliminate the wait for disability benefit determinations. But they will be a big help.