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Benefit backlog harms neediest

The federal bureaucracy that administers Social Security disability payments is unfortunately snaring some people who are seriously ill, disabled or dying and forcing them to wait months and years before receiving assistance. In Portland, advocates for the homeless and disabled are trying to help those in need by launching a program that can overcome the red tape of the federal Social Security system. We hope these efforts prove effective in expediting disability benefits for people unable to work. But the real answer is for the Bush administration and Congress to agree to hire additional administrative law judges to clear the backlog of Social Security appeals. This logjam of Social Security disability cases has reached crisis proportions for those who truly need disability payments in order to live. According to a recent article in The New York Times, 755,000 people nationwide are waiting to have their appeals heard — a process that can take three years or longer. Portland agency trying to help Locally, it’s easy to find real-life examples of the national problem. One such person — 46-year-old Kevin Kilmer — was featured in a Portland Tribune article on Friday. Kilmer has a condition known as a Type II Chiari malformation, which causes severe neurological symptoms. He is incapable of working, but after two years of trying to obtain disability benefits, he’s still stuck in the Social Security labyrinth. While Kilmer’s disease is rare, his situation is not — many other Portlanders are in similar circumstances. That’s why Central City Concern, with funding help from the Portland-based Northwest Health Foundation and the City Council, is creating a Benefits and Entitlements Specialist Team to assist the city’s poorest and most disabled citizens. The team will help people seeking federal disability benefits put together the best case possible. While such local assistance will be enormously helpful for some, it can make only a small dent in a gargantuan problem. A more comprehensive solution can be achieved only if the Bush administration and Congress resolve a budget impasse that prevents the hiring of more administrative law judges who evaluate disability claims. More judges needed Getting Social Security disability benefits ought not be easy. If it were, the disability rolls would be filled with frauds. But the current system has the perverse effect of punishing society’s most needy — those with debilitating injuries and terminal illnesses — in order to weed out malingerers. Most requests for Social Security disability are rejected in the first round of review, which is conducted by state agencies under federal oversight. But for people who pursue an appeal, nearly two-thirds end up getting their benefits. The Social Security Administration recognizes that those with very rare diseases — people like Kilmer — are being unfairly denied benefits, and it has promised to improve its initial case evaluation. But for those people already caught in bureaucratic purgatory, such reforms will be too little too late. While they wait for benefits, many are becoming financially destitute, losing their homes or even dying. The way to clear the backlog is to employ more judges. Oregon’s congressional delegation — especially Republicans Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Greg Walden — must press President Bush to finally agree to a budget compromise that gives the Social Security Administration adequate resources to promptly determine the difference between someone who is trying to scam the system and someone who is in desperate need of help.