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New Phoenix Social Security office aims to cut disability claims backlog

A new Social Security Administration office in north Phoenix is part of a national effort to reduce wait times as aging baby boomers and the unemployed increase the number of disability claims. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Maria Polletta)

A new Social Security Administration office in north Phoenix is part of a national effort to reduce wait times as aging baby boomers and the unemployed increase the number of disability claims. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Maria Polletta)

It’s hard for Kathryn Cox to remember a time when she wasn’t sick.

“From the time I was a child, I felt like I was always more tired than everybody else, always in a lot of pain,” she said.

After years of battling chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, ulcerative colitis and other conditions, the former teacher from Scottsdale filed for disability in 2006 — the beginning of a two-year road to approval that “seemed to take forever,” she said.

And that was before aging baby boomers and the economic downturn sparked a flood of disability claims nationwide that increased waiting times.

With that in mind, the Social Security Administration began opening new claims-hearing offices to speed up the process in particularly congested areas. Last year, Phoenix was selected for one such office, which joined existing offices in Phoenix and Tucson.

Slowly but surely, it seems to be working. Since the new office began hearing cases in June, the reported wait time for a decision in the greater Phoenix area had dropped from 477 days to 405 days by late October, according to office director Michele Ridge.

Though Ridge couldn’t speak for Cox’s specific case, she said it’s likely that similar claimants now would face shorter wait times with two Phoenix offices open to serve them.

“We really have a lot of hope that everyone in the area will benefit a great deal,” Ridge said. The office serves claimants in Maricopa and Yavapai counties.

The hearing stage is the third of as many as five in the disability-claims process. Hearings are crucial because they allow for a verbal presentation of the case and are where most claims are approved, according to Dan Allsup, communications director for disability claims-services company Allsup Inc.

Staffed by about 50 people, Ridge’s office is embracing the shift toward more technologically savvy claims processing with the hope that more efficient systems will lead to shorter wait times. Private computer rooms off the waiting area allow claimants to review case materials, hearing rooms are equipped with flat screens for video conferencing and paper files are scanned and accessed through an electronic records system.

The office expects to eventually hear an average of 350 to 400 cases a month.

That’s just a fraction of the millions of cases the Social Security Administration expects to process nationwide in fiscal 2011. In Sept. 28 testimony to the Senate Finance Committee, Social Security Administration officials said the agency expects to decide 3.3 million claims in the coming year.

Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue hopes that newly established offices like Phoenix’s will make extensive wait times, like Cox’s, a thing of the past.

“Eliminating the hearings backlog is a moral imperative,” Astrue said in 2009 testimony to the House Ways and Means Committee. “No one should have to wait years for a decision.”

But Allsup believes there is still much to be done to get people across the country through the claims process sooner.

“Even though waiting times are being cut, it’s like a congested highway,” he said. “There’s a backup at the toll booth. There are more people going into the system than people going out.”

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