VOICES: Federal government backlogs keeping people from benefits they deserve

I did everything I was supposed to do.

I applied for my Medicare number on March 1, a process that should take two to four weeks, according to the Social Security website. As of this writing, my request is still pending, and that’s a problem because if I don’t get a number by May 31, I stand to lose the Medicare Part C and D pension benefit coverage I worked 30 years to attain. I also canceled my Monday checkup because I don’t have insurance.

I use myself as an example of a problem that impacts millions including people here in the Miami Valley. Federal government backlogs mean people can’t expeditiously get the benefits they deserve.

How bad it is?

The Veteran’s Benefits Administration has a backlog of nearly 300,000 claims. The VA defines a backlog as a claim that’s been pending for more than four months.

Anyone applying for Social Security Disability Benefits waits an average of seven months before getting an initial decision. As of November 2023, there were 1.15 million (!) backlogged cases. Even worse, if Social Security denies a claim, it can take years to go before an administrative judge an appeal.

As of April, the federal Office of Personnel Management had a backlog of more than 16,000 cases. The agency takes about two months to process one claim.

These are just three examples of dysfunction that hurts people who need help the most.

Jerry Dodd is one of those people. The Miami County resident fought for decades to get the full benefits he deserved for ailments suffered during his time at Camp Lejeune. All the while, he endured blinding headaches, seizures, and hospitalization.

In Ohio, the average Social Security Disability check in 2023 was $1,422 a month, just slightly below the national average. That’s a lot of money for someone who needs it, but the government tells these folks they have to wait more than half a year to get an answer.

People who need the government’s help have been reduced to nameless, faceless claim numbers that flash on a computer screen. The overworked government workers can’t really help much because the system doesn’t allow it. In my case, Social Security workers were only allowed to escalate my dilemma via email, which is as efficient as placing a note in a bottle in New York Harbor and hoping it makes its way to England. It might, eventually, but eventually isn’t an acceptable timeline.

I can weather the annoyance (assuming I don’t lose my corporate benefits; that would be bad), and will simply pay for medications out of pocket (very expensive!) Most people can’t simply write a check to cover the government’s incompetence.

The Deloitte Center for Government Insights released a report with sensible recommendations to reduce government backlogs. Suggestions included getting the customer experience right by utilizing the latest technology; becoming an outcome-driven culture that measures success by people served, not forms filled out; and automating processes when possible.

The first order of government should be helping those in need. When the feds allow veterans to go months without the benefits they earned; force the disabled to wait for funds; and can’t swiftly serve people waiting for their retirement; then the federal government has failed its citizens.

Politicians should focus on how they serve their constituents. (And yes, I contacted a local lawmaker, filled out a form, sent a follow-up email and received no response.)

They serve them by addressing their needs, and fixing backlogs is a massive need.

I write this not for myself but for all of those who don’t have a voice and need help.

When I called, yet again, the local Social Security office seeking to speed up the process of getting a Medicare number, the answer was: Wait.

That’s not a good answer, and it’s flat-out unacceptable.

Bureaucratic ineptness hurts people who suffer from benefit delays. Someone needs to start fixing it.

Ray Marcano’s column appears on these pages each Sunday.

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