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With the U.S. economy struggling to create jobs, the Social Security Administration expects 3.3 million Social Security disability claims this year, up 700,000 from 2008. The Social Security system is so inundated by applications for disability benefits that many wait more than two years for their first payment. In economically stressed states like Michigan, the wait can be even longer.

In 1999, the Disability Redesign Prototype initiative eliminated the reconsideration step from the application process in one state from each region: Alaska, Alabama, California, Colorado, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York and Pennsylvania. The initiative was expected to result in earlier decisions and reduced waiting times for claimants. However, the opposite has occurred.

The application process begins with an individual filing a request for benefits at a local disability determination services office. These offices make the first judgment on the request within three to four months. Nationwide, about 60 percent are rejected. Half of those initially rejected withdraw their claim for benefits. In the 40 states exempt from the redesign initiative, individuals who wish to appeal their rejection can seek a hearing from the local office. In Michigan and the nine other states, this step was eliminated in 1999, forcing individuals to appeal to a board of administrative law judges. By 2007, the percentage of initial decisions that ended up at the hearings level increased fivefold.

Instead of speeding up claims, the initiative has clogged the appeals process. The 10 prototype states now account for nearly one-third of all claims that reach the appeals level. “Reinstating reconsideration would allow a significant number of cases to be allowed at reconsideration, resulting in earlier payment to those claimants and a reduction in the number of hearing requests,” states an April 2010 Social Security report to the House Ways and Means Committee.

However, opponents argue that reintroducing reconsideration may result in even longer waits for claimants. “It’s going to make a bad situation worse,” says Cliff Weisberg, a Detroit-area attorney whose firm manages about 2,000 cases each year. “What good is it … if by the time you get to a hearing, the client is dead?”

About 40,000 people in Michigan are waiting for the Social Security Administration to decide their appeal for disability benefits. The state has boosted efforts to clear the backlog by opening two new hearings offices and is considering hiring 175 new employees to reduce the initial claims processing times and to re-implement the reconsideration step. They are also allowing claimants to appeal their cases to administrative law judges in other states via video hearings.