Floridians wait for more than 2 years for disability hearing

Wait time in Miami office is 699 days

By Adrianna Iwasinski - Investigative Reporter

According to the Florida Disability Benefits Center, 65 percent of the applications they receive are initially denied. And in the state of Florida, it can take anywhere from one to two years to get a disability hearing, and even longer to get a decision.

There is also a mandatory five-month waiting period to even start receiving benefits, even after a person gets their established onset date. That means if a person is awarded benefits, say, March 1, a person would not receive them until August. And if a person was to receive a year's worth of back disability, they would only receive payment for seven months.

According to the FDBC website, it can take anywhere from 376 to 682 days to obtain a disability hearing. It will take an additional 45 to 90 days to receive a decision on the disability claim.

The area in which people live will also be a factor in how long they wait.

In the Orlando, office, which serves the Kissimmee, Lake Mary, Leesburg, Ocala and Orlando field offices, the average processing time is 502 days. In the Fort Lauderdale ODAR office, it takes an average of 376 days to schedule a disability hearing before an administrative law judge. In the Fort Myers office, the wait is 11 months. In the St. Petersburg office, it's 13 months. And the Tampa office is 682 days.

So we took our research one step further and searched the Social Security Administration data on average wait times until a hearing is held. According to their records, for the month of May 2017, here's how the averages break down. The shortest wait time is 14 months in Fort Myers. While the longest wait time is 23 months or 699 days for the Miami office.

The average times are based on how long the people who had disability hearings in May had to wait to go before the judge. 

These times are not cumulative for the stated fiscal year, the administration said. 

To see the waiting times across Florida and the nation, click here.

So why is this wait so horribly long? And just how many people are going broke or even dying waiting for their case to get heard by a judge?

That is what News 6 wanted to know and why we launched this investigation. We talked with two people in Central Florida who are currently caught in this seemingly never-ending waiting game.

Jessica Quillen was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and spinal stenosis in 2014. She says she has been waiting for her disability benefits for more than two years.

She finally got a hearing date set for this fall.

"It is tough when you have some kind of illness that it's not curable, it’s not fair for you to wait so much, so long," Quillen said.

She's not alone.

Robert Frazier is from Daytona Beach. He filed for disability in February of last year. He's already received not one but two denial letters, and has finally hired a lawyer to help him with his case.

"And that's when I was told I'd be placed on a two-year waiting list for a hearing," said Frazier. "I was basically speechless! Who's to say I'll even be around in two years?"

So is Frazier disabled? Both he and his wife tell News 6 that he was recently in a car crash, and when he was in the hospital being treated for that, doctors discovered from an X-ray discovered he had an inoperable mass growing on his spine.

"If they go and biopsy it, it will paralyze or kill me," Frazier said Frazier .

Frazier is now bedbound -- unable to work. And the bills keep piling up.

"We're here struggling to maintain the little bit we do have," Frazier said.

"Disability, you never know when it is going to strike," said attorney Thomas Farrell, who represents clients in both North and Central Florida.

Farrell says the disability waiting game is often a vicious cycle - and here's why.
When somebody becomes disabled, they often lose their job, and the insurance they had with it.
And since they can't make money, they often don't go to the doctor, since they simply can't afford it.

"The problem is the main evidence in a Social Security case are your client's medical records," Farrell said. "But if somebody's not treating, there are no records being generated and it creates a big gap in the evidence that attorneys like me have to work with."

And for the hundreds of thousands of people like Frazier and Quillen, it can feel like a never-ending battle for benefits they need just to survive.

"I know there's medical conditions that don't get better. I don't see the point of the delaying," Quillen said. "I hope things will change in the future."

"Everywhere I turn, it just seems to be a dead end, a brick wall," said a frustrated Frazier, who is no stranger to fighting for government assistance. "I think I had to apply 30 times just to get Medicaid! So now I'm on full permanent Medicaid -- which you can't get unless you're disabled -- but I'm not on disability? If I had known the process was like this, I would have hired an attorney from the start."

Robert's wife even wrote a seven-page letter to Gov. Rick Scott to see if he can get results.

They've also started a GoFundMe page to try to pay for his mounting medical bills while they wait and pray for him to get his disability benefits approved.

Farrell points out the attorney fees on disability cases are capped, with any attorney being able to collect a maximum of $6,000 from a client's disability back-pay amount, and not from any of their future payments.

News 6 has also learned there are a few compassionate allowances that can help people get approved faster -for example, those who have cancer. Farrell says wounded warriors can also file for an expedited hearing.

According to Farrell, he attributes the long wait time to more people seeking disability benefits, mainly because of the baby boomer generation coming of age, and also the population size growing every year. He says the new health care bill currently being debated may also have an effect on future Social Security benefits and future wait times for disability benefits.

We have emailed the offices of both U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D) and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R) in order to get answers. This week Sen. Nelson sat down with News 6 investigator Adrianna Iwasinski and showed her what he's personally doing in Washington to answer our questions and his questions as to why these wait times are so long and what' being done to improve them.

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