Outraged by the numbers included in the March 2008 Social Security Administration (SSA) hearing office report, Congressman Brian Higgins (NY-27) wrote a letter to Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue insisting on more Administrative Law Judges in the Buffalo-area hearing office. The Buffalo-area office service area includes: Erie, Chautauqua, Niagara, Genesee, Ontario, Monroe, and Cattaraugus counties.
As of March 2008:
• It takes 669 days (nearly two years) for the average Western New Yorker to have their SSA case heard and processed in the Buffalo Hearing Office, one of the worst processing times in the country.
• Administrative Law Judges in Buffalo have some of the largest caseloads in the country, with an average of 895 cases pending before each judge.
• 47% of the SSA cases in the Buffalo Hearing Office have been pending for over a year, among the highest percentages in the country. The average age of all claims pending is 381 days.
“Western New Yorkers deserve more respect from our federal government,” said Congressman Higgins. “We are talking about people here, not numbers, - people who deserve an answer, one way or another, so they can plan for their future and live each day without the fear and frustration these backlogs create. An immediate alleviation of these caseloads is essential.”
The Social Security Administration has announced 135 Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) appointments in Fiscal Year 2008. 10 have been assigned to New York: 3 in New York City, 2 in Queens, 3 in Syracuse, and 2 in Albany. No new judges have been assigned to Buffalo even though the backlog has been well-documented by the Social Security Administration itself.
Congressman Higgins has long supported increased funding for the Social Security Administration. In January, Congressman Higgins introduced H.R. 5110, the Social Security Customer Service Improvement Act which if enacted would provide Members of Congress with detailed information on the operation and staffing of Social Security offices in their districts and around the country. Members of Congress should have ready access to this type of information, not only because it is exactly the type of information necessary to measure the effectiveness of government agencies, but also because when citizens aren’t treated properly at their local Social Security office, they immediately reach out to their local Member of Congress for expedited assistance.
"Social Security Disability is an insurance policy which was created to be a safety net for millions of disabled Americans, and for many, such as myself, it has become their only lifeline for survival,” said Linda Fullerton, President and Co-Founder of the Social Security Disability Coalition. “I have personally suffered from the permanent affects of the severe backlogs in the Buffalo, NY hearing office, and I am very disgusted to know that conditions are continuing to decline. I lost all my resources, life savings, and pension money during the 13 month wait for my SSDI claim to be processed in that office. I will never be able to recover from the financial, physical and emotional devastation that was caused due to the enormous waiting time I endured. Healthy, working Americans, if they are lucky, have a few weeks worth of savings in case of an emergency, yet the SSA is asking disabled Americans to wait several years with no income. They say you can judge a country by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens. Based on my own personal experience, and from what I have seen and heard over the last several years, the USA should hang its head in shame.”
H.R. 5110 has 35 cosponsors, including Reps. Michael Arcuri, Joe Baca, Tim Bishop, Leonard Boswell, Nancy Boyda, Bruce Braley, Russ Carnahan, Steve Cohen, Joe Courtney, Elijah Cummings, Rosa DeLauro, Lloyd Doggett, Joe Donnelly, Mike Doyle, Keith Ellison, Bob Etheridge, Sam Farr, Raul Grijalva, Phil Hare, Baron Hill, Ruben Hinojosa, Steve Israel, Dave Loebsack, Betty McCollum, Mike McIntyre, Jerry McNerney, Dennis Moore, Frank Pallone, Jan Schakowsky, Heath Shuler, José Serrano, Ike Skelton, Zach Space, Chris Van Hollen, and Charlie Wilson.
Below is a copy of the letter sent to the SSA:
April 14, 2008
The Honorable Michael J. Astrue
Commissioner of Social Security
International Trade Commission Building, Room 850
500 E Street SW
Washington, DC 20254
Dear Commissioner Astrue:
I write you today expressing my strong concern over the failure of the Social Security Administration to devote crucial resources to combat the egregious backlog of Social Security Disability cases at the Buffalo hearing office.
It is my understanding that for fiscal year 2008, none of the 135 new Administrative Law Judges that that have been appointed by the Administration would be stationed in the Buffalo hearing office. In my view, this is simply unacceptable. The facts speak for themselves that the hearing backlog in the Buffalo office is one of the worst in the country and judges are terribly overloaded. While I understand and appreciate that the Administration has increased resources for teleconferencing and other efficiency measures, these improvements are simply not enough unless they are complemented by an increase in staff on the ground to handle the groundswell of claims.
The ultimate losers in the situation are the people of Western New York. As of March 2008, the average processing time for Social Security Administration cases in the Buffalo hearing office was an astounding 669 days. These applicants are hard-working people, many who are unemployed because of their predicament. The economic situation of the region is such that many of these applicants cannot find suitable work elsewhere. These cases must be resolved expeditiously so applicants can move on with their lives.
This issue is all about basic respect and dignity for the challenges that people face every day. I would appreciate the opportunity to work with you and your staff to help allocate at least two or three additional Administrative Law Judges to the Buffalo hearing office so as to effectively combat this irreprehensible backlog.
Member of Congress