Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Pursuit of Social Security Benefits in a Culture of Denial

In the recent months, high denial rates among those applying for Social Security benefits has been the topic of immense concern. Investigations into denials of specific cases have caused some to call the Administration's strategies a "culture of denial." With only a 48% approval rate at Initial Application, this doesn't seem far from the truth. A report published by CBS news reported that most people do not bother to appeal a denial the first time they are disapproved for benefits. Last year, two-thirds of all applicants gave up after their first denial, meaning millions of Americans who paid into the system and quite possibly were deserving of benefits, never received assistance. Most of those that did continue fighting for benefits were faced with long wait times- lasting over 1 year, and often times, further denials.

After a two-month investigation, the CBS report called the denials part of a "system whose own standards have been called into question." The Administration's recent budget cuts and high staff turnover has resulted in longer back logs of cases, medical experts who are rendering opinions outside their specialties and inexperienced examiners being pressured to disapprove claims in order to keep costs down.

SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue commented that "it's a very tough standard...and you can argue whether that should be the standard or not, but I'm stuck with that." However, feedback from former Administration has caused a great deal of distress and apprehension among the disabled. Trisha Cardillo, a former Administration employee who reviewed over 200 disability cases a month out of Ohio, has stated "we're failing the disabled on a very large scale." She added that "there were a lot of times when I was fighting with management because I wanted to approve a claim...and I had to go through so many steps and - jump through so many hurdles to do that, it just seemed ridiculous." Cardillo explained that in essence, there is a "quota system" in which "each state has different numbers and they know that a certain percentage of people, once denied, will never file an appeal."

A prime example of the results yielded by this toughened standard is Mr. Robert Veneziali' case. He is a 38 year old applicant for disability benefits who is diagnosed with rapidly progressing Multiple Sclerosis. After applying for benefits, he was turned down and told that his case could be re-examined in another 18 months. Desperate for assistance, he turned to his congressman Rep. John Hall. Hall had heard of the recent CBS report on the administration's "culture of denial" in New York and 13 other states where systems where in place to deter people from obtaining benefits. He called for a federal investigation and stated that the treatment of people like Veneziali was "unconscionable."

With the assistance of congressional representatives who are voicing concerns over long wait times and high denial rates, perhaps the system that Social Security is currently operating under will be improved. Recently, due to concerns expressed by the public and Members of Congress, the Administration suspended some of their processes that were creating difficulties for claimants at the hearing level. After more than 500 comments were submitted criticizing the proposed rule that had put restrictions on the submission of evidence, Commissioner Astrue officially suspended that rule on January 29. 2008. This leaves open the possibility that with enough public concern and the assistance of our elected officials, the Administration will make changes to better the system and eventually this "culture of denial" will be transformed.

Shaneela Khan is an expert on Social Security Law and has been working in the Field for the past 15 years. For more information on Social Security Benefits please visit:

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