Editorials

We need a Social Security Commissioner

Eileen Gabaldon talks about her experience applying for Social Security disability benifits after her husband suffered a major heart attack. He died while he was waiting for a decision to be made on his disability benefits.
Eileen Gabaldon talks about her experience applying for Social Security disability benifits after her husband suffered a major heart attack. He died while he was waiting for a decision to be made on his disability benefits. rmallison@star-telegram.com

In an era of instant everything, it's difficult to imagine waiting two years for a Social Security disability hearing.

But more than one million Americans who have been denied disability benefits are awaiting an appeal, and two years is only the average waiting period for a hearing. Some will wait longer. Some won’t live long enough to attend a hearing.

Part of the problem is that the Social Security Administration has been without a commissioner since 2013.

Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, who chairs the Social Security Subcommittee, called that "simply unacceptable."

"It’s going to take real leadership to turn things around," he added.

We agree, which is why we urge President Trump to expedite the appointment of a commissioner and to find the resources and staff needed to more swiftly approve assistance for those who need and deserve it.

In Fort Worth the average wait time for a disability hearing is 483 days. That’s more than a year, and it’s quicker than many other parts of the country

Even that was too long, though, for Larry Gabaldon, who like more than 7,000 other Americans, died in 2016 while waiting to hear whether he’d receive disability benefits.

This isn't an uncommon tragedy.

The Star-Telegram's Jeff Caplan spoke with his widow, Eileen, who has yet to receive the $17,000 in benefits awarded to her late husband earlier this year.

The Social Security Administration's Supplemental Security Income program known as SSI provides monthly payments to about 8 million people with limited income and resources who are aged, blind, or disabled. But the disability claims system is inefficient and backlogged, leaving a significant portion of recipients uncertain of their eligibility and often in dire financial straits.

It's been this way for years.

There is no reason a major government agency that touches the lives of so many American families should be without a leader for more than four years. The Trump Administration has yet to even name a nominee.

In September, Bea Disman, the SSA's acting chief of staff, told the House Ways and Means Committee that her agency is working to address the backlog by hiring 500 new administrative law judges and 600 support staff for the hearings operation. Disman wants to also expanda program that expedites benefits for people with certain serious illnesses and conditions.

Those efforts are a step in the right direction, but the agency needs a leader who will follow through on that idea and make it a priority to swiftly deliver assistance for those who qualify.

Johnson is right to press Trump for a nominee. More members of Congress and the public should join him.

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