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WKYT Investigates | SSDI: The long wait in Ky.

Experts in Lexington say wait times are getting better, but it is still a long process - and a difficult one.
Published: Mar. 22, 2021 at 4:00 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - A backlog of claims for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is impacting more than a million Americans, a Gray Television InvestigateTV analysis found. Experts say it also includes people in Lexington, although there are signs of progress.

“Some people think they can get it right away,” said Henry White, a certified disability representative and partner at Stromatt and Associates. “Well, Social Security and DDS doesn’t work that way. It’s a very complex system.”

Every day White tries to help clients get through the piles of paperwork and the maze that is the SSDI application process. That is why Jeanitta Smith says she went to him for help after part of her lung was removed in December 2018.

“I can’t climb steps anymore without having to stop every three steps,” said Smith, a REALTOR. “I can’t climb up hills. I can’t carry anything across the room if it weighs more than two or three pounds without getting winded.”

But she was still denied twice before finally being approved for disability benefits in January, more than two years after she first applied.

“You have to be tenacious,” she told WKYT’s Garrett Wymer.

It is a long wait for many.

An August report from the Government Accountability Office found that nationwide, people who filed an appeal waitied more than one year for a final decision on their claim. Between 2014 and 2019, roughly 48,000 Americans filed for bankruptcy while waiting on a decision. Between 2008 and 2019, nearly 110,000 who filed an appeal died before they ever got an answer.

Public data from the Social Security Administration shows in Lexington the average wait time for a hearing after being denied: 284 days as of last fall. That is more than nine months - just to find out if the claimant will get an appeal.

Wait times have gone down in recent years, and we do not know from the data how the COVID pandemic has impacted them. White says from his experience the wait has gotten shorter as hearings have moved from in-person to over the phone. But it is still a long process, and a hard one.

“I always ask, ‘You willing to stick with it? You willing to go the long haul?’” White said. “I get calls every day, people crying, ‘Why is it taking them so long?’”

That is why Jeanitta Smith says she was so relieved when her claim was approved 26 months later.

“It was tears of joy,” she said. “Finally. Finally.”

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