When Deja Mosley gave birth late last year to her second son, Camren, cataracts glazed over both of his eyes. The infant was diagnosed with glaucoma, a condition that will likely render him blind for life.
Doctors suggested that Mosley, 23, apply for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — federal aid for those who are poor and disabled, blind, or elderly. But Camren’s February application was denied, concluding that he was not blind. Doctors told Mosley she should appeal, given Camren’s vision impairment and need for extensive eye surgeries. So she did, in May.
“People said it would take a year,” Mosley said.
Instead, she got an early December hearing date. And then came even better news: In a call last week with her lawyer, an administrative judge ruled that Mosley’s son did deserve the benefits, removing the need for a hearing.
The resolution reflects a stark improvement in a system that had been notoriously sluggish. In January, the Inquirer and Daily News chronicled how Philadelphia’s disability appeal hearing office had the worst average wait time in the country — 26 months — and a backlog of about 5,000 cases.
In the wake of that report, the city’s representatives in Washington met with the Social Security Administration and pressed officials to do something about the situation.
Since then, Social Security has about doubled the number of judges and decision writers assigned to each of the two Philadelphia offices and the one in Elkins Park, and transferred hundreds of cases to be prepared at less-busy offices throughout the country.
The two Philadelphia offices have each cut backlog cases by more than 1,000 this year, and are down to an average of 17 months for an appeal hearing.
Judges have been chipping away at cases at faster rates, thanks in part to steps by Social Security to streamline the decision-making process, including requiring fewer in-person hearings, which take longer to schedule and can be punishing for someone who is too disabled to work and needs the benefits to survive.
“If the file is all laid out for them … [a judge] can say, ‘I can make a decision because I got Dr. Smith’s records in,’" said Social Security Administration spokesperson Dan O’Connor. “Instead of waiting six more months for a hearing, we can decide now.”
Nationwide, the administration has also made a dent in its backlog, dropping from a pending caseload of one million cases in March to 800,000 as of last month.
That might reflect more funding. Congress gave the agency $190 million in funding in the last two years to specifically help decrease the backlog by hiring staff and improving technology. Philadelphia, for instance, went from 14 administrative law judges split between the offices to 23, and the number of decision writers increased from seven to 13 in each office.
As of November, the four offices in and around Philadelphia and South Jersey still had more than 21,000 appeal cases pending. And the Philadelphia and national average processing time for appeals is about 540 days. But SSA officials believe they can get to the 270-day average by the end of 2021 or 2022.
Not everyone sees the changes as completely positive. Some lawyers for appellants are worried that judges may be too willing to rule without an in-person hearing. And Social Security is planning early next year to add another review step in the process — called reconsideration — in Pennsylvania and nine other states, which critics say could again lengthen delays.
The agency says reconsideration — a second review of a rejected claim for disability payments prior to a hearing — would create a uniform process (40 other states already have this step) and get to the goal of average decision time in nine months by 2021. But two Pennsylvania Democrats, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, are pushing a bill that would prohibit the administration from implementing reconsideration in the 10 states that don’t have it.
“It’s an insult” to add another step to an already lengthy process, Casey said. “I shouldn’t have to introduce legislation to correct this.”
Camren’s appeal turned out better than the average. It was decided within seven months of being filed, lower than Social Security’s goal of nine months.
Mosley works at a Wawa store in University City four times a week to help pay the bills, but it’s not enough for the family – Camren has one brother — to live on its own. Camren’s father, who is legally blind from glaucoma and was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, is unable to work and is receiving disability benefits himself. The family sleeps in one bedroom in a three-bedroom house they share with Mosley’s two adult sisters.
The Social Security Administration still has to decide how much income the Mosleys will receive. The average is $526 a month.
The family’s Community Legal Services attorney, Jen Burdick, said the case shouldn’t have reached the appeal level. She said that while Camren was technically too young for a visual acuity test, which would prove he is legally blind, he had a delay in cognitive functioning and other evidence connected to his impairment.
Burdick got involved in Camren’s case once the appeal had been filed. When she presented the Social Security Administration with more detailed medical records, she asked for a decision without a hearing. Such “on the record” decisions are made at a judge’s discretion.
“We could’ve shaved a couple of months” if Camren’s updated file had been provided to a judge even sooner, Burdick said. She and other advocates have been pushing for the administration to hold more on-the-record decisions.
The agency has also been conducting more hearings via live video stream, enlisting a judge in a less-busy office somewhere else in the country to preside over a case in a Philadelphia appeal room. Attorneys for applicants, however, are not fans of the video conferences and tend to request in-person hearings.
“We have a balancing act. We can wait for a face-to-face and have another six-month wait,” or agree to go sooner via video conference, said Thomas J. Giordano Jr., a partner at Pond Lehocky Stern Girodano and co-chair of the Philadelphia Bar Social Security Disability Law Committee. “We owe it to our clients to say what the benefits are and nonbenefits are.”
O’Connor, the administration spokesperson, said that given staffing issues, insisting on in-person hearings only lengthens wait times. The administration is looking to no longer allow video conferences to be optional, he said.
Back at the Mosley household, Camren is using a baby walker to learn to get around. Like most babies, he continuously crashes into furniture on the walker and, given the season, into their small Christmas tree.
The tree lacked any presents last week. But the family already received the best Christmas gift. The disability benefits for Camren might enable them to move into their own home. The infant has already had four eye surgeries; a fifth is scheduled for next month.