A U.S. District Court judge in Virginia has ruled that an experimental government program was unconstitutional and created unwarranted delays for people seeking Social Security benefits.
Judge Glen M. Williams said the five-year-old Adjudicatory Improvement Project worked against claimants even though it supposedly was set up to be neutral.
In addition to being unconstitutional, Williams said, the project violates the Social Security Act by causing lengthy delays in processing requests for appeals hearings.
Williams cited one case in which the claimant, whose disability was due partly to cardiovascular problems, died of acute heart failure while an appeal was in progress.
"The absolute injustice of this act almost defies description," Williams said.
A lawsuit challenging the program was filed in November 1982 in federal court in Abingdon on behalf of seven persons claiming that the project was unfair because the government representatives, who were supposed to be neutral, usually argued against the claimants.
Martin D. Wegbreit of Client Centered Legal Services of Southwest Virginia Inc., who represented one of the claimants, was pleased with Williams' decision. "It's a total victory. I mean, he couldn't have ruled any more in our favor."
Social Security Administration spokesman Jim Brown said yesterday that "there is no evidence that the process took longer." He explained that the project, which began in four states in 1982, was designed to "streamline the appeals process" by providing a government representative to review the facts of a disability claim being brought before an administrative law judge.
In many cases, Brown said, the representative was able to make a decision on a case without going forward with a hearing. He also said the project was reviewed last fall and found to benefit twice as many people, having processed 15,000 disability appeals cases since its inception.
Williams' ruling however, prevents government representatives from handling any more cases. The Social Security Administration is now reviewing the decision.