Social Security to expedite veteran disability claims

February 19, 2014

The Social Security Administration plans to streamline its review of disability claims for veterans starting next month, shaving weeks off the process by which it determines benefits, officials are set to announce Wednesday.

The Woodlawn-based agency says it will expedite claims for former service members who already have been deemed fully disabled by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, alleviating a bureaucratic nightmare for veterans who sometimes waited years to get a decision about their eligibility for benefits.

Carolyn W. Colvin, the acting commissioner of Social Security, is set to announce the policy change in Baltimore. The move would add disabled veterans to the list of high-priority groups — including service members wounded in combat — that are put at the head of the line for review.

«It’s a very good result for veterans who obviously made a tremendous commitment to their country,» said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pushed for the quicker review. «They’re returning from overseas conflicts and they’ve suffered injuries that make it impossible for them to have gainful employment.»

It’s not clear exactly how many people would be affected by the policy, but the Social Security Administration estimates it could be tens of thousands of veterans over time.

Fully disabled veterans accounted for about 10 percent of all veterans who received disability benefits from the VA in 2012, the last year for which data are available.

That’s about 360,000 people. But many of them might already be receiving Social Security benefits.

Nearly 11 million people nationwide collect Social Security disability benefits, up from 7.6 million a decade ago. The agency has struggled for years with a stubborn backlog in processing those claims. It takes an average of about three months to receive an initial determination and nearly a year to complete an appeal.

About 63,750 of the 450,000 veterans who live in Maryland collect disability benefits from the VA.

Maj. Robert Fessock served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Maryland National Guard. As an adviser to the Afghan National Police in Kabul in 2011, the Nottingham man says, he survived a hotel bombing, processed bodies from suicide attacks and pulled dead soldiers from a burning vehicle.

Now, he says, he suffers anxiety, flashbacks and debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder — conditions that make it impossible for him to return to his civilian job as a police officer in Washington, D.C.

Fessock says the VA awarded him a 70 percent disability rating, but his claim for Social Security disability benefits was denied. He is appealing both the VA rating and the Social Security denial.

«I did a lot for my country,» said Fessock, 38. «When it comes to capturing terrorists, I did a lot for evidence and intelligence. I don’t think the Social Security Administration understands what soldiers go through.»

It’s not clear whether the new Social Security protocol would help Fessock. He says he’s hopeful the streamlined process will better serve all veterans.

Under the new policy, applicants who have been deemed 100 percent disabled by the VA are to be put on a «fast track» at virtually every step of the process.

Sarbanes says he expects veterans will be seen by an agency employee for an initial interview within three days of filing a claim and that they’ll receive a determination about their financial eligibility for benefits in a matter of days.

The change won’t make it any more likely veterans will receive benefits, officials say — just that they’ll get a decision more quickly.

About 63,750 of the 450,000 veterans who live in Maryland collect disability benefits from the VA.

Advocates for veterans applauded the Social Security Administration change, but called on officials to do more to help former service members who are caught in backlogs at Social Security or the VA.

Joe Moore, who represents disabled veterans as a partner at the Bethesda firm Bergmann & Moore, says mistakes that are made regularly at the VA’s regional offices harm wounded and ailing servicemen and servicewomen daily.

Moore said officials should be commended for assisting veterans who are pursuing Social Security claims, but said Congress must also deal with the VA’s «broken disability claim system.»

Initial VA claims take an average of 168 days to process, but many veterans wait upward of a year. Appeals can take years.

Darin Selnick, an Air Force veteran with Concerned Veterans for America, said he wants to see whether the new Social Security Administration protocol works as promised.

«The VA and its partnerships with the DOD and the Social Security Administration are very good at many pronouncements about what they’re going to do,» he said. «They’re not so good at making it happen.»

The announcement is a political coup for Sarbanes, who has repeatedly introduced legislation in the House of Representatives to expedite the claims process at Social Security.

His efforts gained broad bipartisan support in Washington, but never enough political traction to stand a chance of becoming law.

Sarbanes says he became involved in the issue after hearing from a Baltimore Highlands constituent in 2007 who had been certified as 100 percent disabled by Veteran Affairs but waited two years for the Social Security Administration to approve disability benefits.

«There’s all kinds of reasons why legislation may not advance ... so we didn’t want to put all our eggs in that basket,» Sarbanes said. «You want to remove as many impediments as you can and I think that the process that SSA has come up with here does just that.»

Article By Yvonne Wenger and John Fritze, The Baltimore Sun