Keep your eye on disabled Americans struggle for benefits

As the economy as a whole continues its downward trends, those of us who are disabled due to service in Iraq or other wars, getting old, workplace accidents, illness or other reasons are being hurt hard. This group of people should be a focus for all of us who struggle for social justice, as they are among the most vulnerable in our society, and should be among the prime measures for how we treat our working people.

The backlog for Social Security appeals processing has jumped from 311,000 in 2000 to over 755,000 today. People in hardship and suffering must fight for years to win any help, endure demeaning interactions with underpaid, untrained and often unsympathetic staff. Frequently, they have to hire a lawyer to guide them through the labyrinthine thicket of regulations and laws determining who can be helped and when.

In the Social Security Administration, there are currently 1,025 appeals judges, and the wait averages more than 500 days. Very few people get benefits without going through an appeals process. However, two-thirds of those who endure the appeals process are provided with benefits. This shows the wrongness of the near-automatic initial rejection of benefit requests.

Supposedly, the Social Security Administration nearly always rejects people's benefit requests in order to prevent misuse of the program. However, Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue told The New York Times in December that outright fraud is rare. The real purpose of the rejections is to prevent those who really need help from getting it in a timely way. Each year, some 2.5 million people apply for disability benefits. Of those, two-thirds are turned down and have to appeal. However, most can't afford a lawyer, are too ill, or for other reasons are unable to keep going with the appeal, and therefore don't get help which they would likely be granted if they could push through the entire process. This is a heinous crime against the disabled in the United States.

There are other ways of denying people benefits. For example, changing the definition of a disability can be an effective way to drop people off the rolls or prevent them from being found eligible. People who are hard of hearing face this issue in some states where, to save money on hearing aids under various programs, the level of hearing loss has been raised, leaving people on their own to somehow come up with the thousands of dollars that might be required to meet their needs.

Other initiatives include outsourcing program counselors who determine who is eligible and what services may be needed, cutting back staff and enlarging caseloads, or implementing 'efficiencies' by selecting a single service vendor (the government usually hires businesses to provide services rather than providing them directly). When that happens, many small vendors that provided local services go out of business, and services often become less accessible as disabled or differently-abled folks must travel further to receive services, to be considered for eligibility, or to go through administrative processes such as appeals.

As the disabled struggle to get help, many find themselves losing their homes and getting into state-(under)funded programs for the indigent, which do not provide them with the services they need to maintain their health or prevent further deterioration. Many lose their homes while waiting for their Social Security appeals to be heard, while others simply die. Those who live can end up on state (rather than the federal) assistance programs that provide much less than what is required to survive.

George Bush vetoed a much-needed $275 million increase for the Social Security Administration, calling the spending 'profligate.' This from the president who spends billions weekly in a war for oil in Iraq.

Finally, the rising cost of health care impacts everyone with disabilities, as it does all working people. However, the needs of people with disabilities are for ongoing and expensive care that will be impossible to provide without social supports.

That’s a compelling reason to support HR 676 — the Health Care for All bill — and demand that your representatives support and expand funding for the Social Security Administration. We can't fund the war and meet our needs at home without mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren's futures. Therefore, it’s essential also to demand an end to the Iraq war today, and bring the troops and contractors home to union jobs.