(Source: Sun Sentinel)

The Social Security Administration took a whack at a big backlog of applications for disability benefits in South Florida and the rest of the nation by declaring that more sick people will qualify automatically.

Almost 10,000 people in Broward and Palm Beach counties are waiting for hearings to decide whether they are disabled — third-highest in the nation, with an average wait of 368 days, according to Syracuse University. Over the years, some people have become destitute or died while waiting for hearings.

The SSA said its new policy adds 52 serious illnesses to a list of 113 conditions that make a person automatically eligible for disability, so he doesn’t get denied and have to wait in the backlog for a hearing date.

“This will be a big help for people who are very sick,” said former Social Security Judge Lyle Lieberman, now a Fort Lauderdale lawyer who handles disability cases.

“Social Security has tried very hard to reduce the backlog, but it’s still certainly much too long for people who are truly disabled and trying to get benefits,” Lieberman said.

The wait is actually much longer than a year, because applicants usually spend months or years being denied in initial reviews before they can ask for a formal hearing, said David Benenfeld, a Lauderhill disability lawyer.

In another improvement that starts Saturday, people who apply online for disability benefits can sign their forms electronically and submit them with a mouse click, instead of printing, signing and mailing the paperwork. Federal officials said that will shave days or weeks from the process.

The new policy extends “compassionate allowance” status to various types of brain and other cancers, early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, Huntington’s disease, epilepsy, kidney disorders and more. Starting in August, people with those conditions will be approved in the initial review.

The big backlog of cases stems from years of cutbacks in the disability system. Social Security Administrator Michael Astrue took steps that shrank the wait list starting in 2008, but the recession has again ballooned the backlog, Lieberman said.

Syracuse University says that as of September, South Florida had the third-most people waiting for hearings among 147 U.S. districts. The 368-day wait was 62nd-highest, and above the state average of 354 days and the national average of 347 days.

(Source: Sun Sentinel)

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