A federal administrative law judge signed a letter this week ruling that Adrianne Gunter's multiple sclerosis has left her too sick to work, qualifying her for the government assistance known as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — three months after she finally got a remote hearing via TV hookup and more than two years after she applied.
In total, it took the Social Security Administration 878 days to decide Gunter's case from the time she requested an appeal of her routine denial of benefits. The agency's goal is 270 days. After receiving the decision in a letter dated Monday, she will be able to apply for the federal aid for those who are poor and disabled, blind, or elderly.
The Philadelphia Office of Disability Adjudication and Review has one of the worst averages for decision times in the country: 756 days. Not far behind is the South Jersey office, with a 736-day average decision time as of Feb. 23, according to the latest SSA data.
The story of Gunter's wait for a hearing was part of an Inquirer and Daily News report in January that showed Philadelphia had the longest average delay in the country — 26 months — for SSI appeal hearings. More than one million people in the United States are stuck in a backlog of appeals that the Social Security Administration has called a "public service crisis."
Since January, Social Security has added eight judges to the two Philadelphia-area offices, for a total of 23 administrative law judges. Four area congressmen also wrote to Nancy Berryhill, acting commissioner of the agency, asking her to address the sometimes years-long delays for residents seeking hearings.
U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle, whose district includes parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County, met with Berryhill last week and said that the administration started a prehearing conference pilot program in Philadelphia in an attempt to alleviate the backlog. According to Boyle, Berryhill said a big reason for the pileup is that appellants often don't learn they have a right to an attorney until their scheduled hearing. The prehearing meeting is designed to happen months before the hearing, giving them time to find a lawyer.
"No numbers yet, but they said anecdotally that it's improving" the situation, Boyle said after meeting with Berryhill. He said he plans to follow up in three months.
Since Gunter had her hearing in December, San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Chicago have tied Philadelphia for the dubious honor of longest wait time, but the wait was down to an average of 25 months as of February.
Jennifer Burdick, the Community Legal Services attorney who represented Gunter in her appeal, said Social Security started having the prehearing meetings last year. Burdick said the conference serves as a check-in point with the person appealing an SSI denial, in which the hearing officer will also ask the claimant for updated medical paperwork.
"A lot of our clients have been waiting for two years for a hearing and have no money, do not have stable housing, and are moving around a lot," Burdick said, adding that they often don't notify Social Security of moves and therefore don't receive requests for documents prior to the hearing.
"Logically, they needed to do something earlier.… If you are going to have people wait two years," it's good to have a check-in as part of the waiting period, Burdick said.
The Social Security Administration has not responded to questions about the details of the pilot program.
Boyle said Berryhill also committed to increasing the number of administrative law judges at the Philadelphia area offices, though she didn't specify numbers. Boyle also said Social Security will try to increase the number of appeal decisions made by senior staff attorneys to avoid the need for a formal hearing with a judge.
The agency also has started having more video conferences, such as the one Gunter had.
Gunter got her decision in three months after the hearing, though many in Philadelphia wait much more longer that, according to lawyers who work on SSI appeal cases. For Gunter, the next chapter is filing for benefits — a maximum of $750 a month — and waiting for the government checks.
In the letter sent Monday, the administrative law judge who decided Gunter's case said that Gunter had been disabled since June 6, 2016, a date he chose based on his review of medical records. The disability designation will allow Gunter to apply retroactively for 19 months of government benefits.
"Now I can help with the family and start contributing again," Gunter said Wednesday. "That very idea gives me a little bit of… relief. I really don't like feeling like a burden."
Gunter applied for SSI on May 8, 2015, but said that June 2016 was "when things really started to fall apart" for her. That's when she was prescribed a cane to help her balance and could hardly do any household chores.
Gunter plans to continue living with her mother in their West Philadelphia apartment.
"I don't feel stable at all in order to live by myself," she said.