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BACKLOG ANGERS DISABILITY-RIGHTS PANEL

The office that decides if someone qualifies for disability payments from the federal government hopes to cut in half a 4,000-caseload backlog within six months.

But members of the Disability Rights Action Committee say new management is needed to solve problems in the Utah Disability Determination Services office.Tuesday afternoon, representatives from the Regional Social Security Administration office in Denver, the Salt Lake district office, Sen. Jake Garn's office, the Division of Rehabilitation Services, the Disability Determination Services office and others met with about 50 coalition members to discuss how problems will be solved.

Utah has so many cases "pending" - 4,096 as of Jan. 31, which is twice the normal backlog - that seven workers were sent from Denver to help process applications, and one arrived to help adjudicate cases. The division also hired temporary secretaries and will install a new computer system to reduce labor-intensive work and increase efficiency.

It took about 86 days to process a claim in 1990-91. It now takes 137.9 days. Nationally, cases are processed in 3.3 months, about 100 days. During the past month, the Utah DDS office sent 275 cases a week to offices in other states, some as far away as Maryland, for processing, according to Blaine Petersen, director of the Utah State Office of Rehabilitation, which oversees the DDS office in Utah.

Much of the meeting was point and counterpoint as officials denied claims that Utah's workers incorrectly deny many applications, and are slow and often impossible to reach because of "voice mail."

Coalition member Barbara Toomer said her group wants a monthly progress report, a copy of the contract between the DDS office and the federal government so they will know who is responsible for what, face-to-face intake interviews and a change of management in the office.

"In other words, we want to be able to be treated like human beings," she said.

Petersen said Congress doesn't provide enough funding to hire more staff. "We are not in a position to initiate face-to-face interviews." Management change will not be necessary, he said, because changes being implemented are going to end the backlog.

Mary Ann Townsend, of the Denver regional office, said that application numbers are up in part because the commissioner of Social Security has been "concerned we go out and find people who are entitled to the benefits." She also blamed a lack of doctors willing to provide consultive exams and a fairly high staff turnover rate. But she added that funds are available to process the current workload.

Guadalupe Salinas, regional administrator, said anyone who has been waiting months or even years to get disability assistance should contact Richard Esquibel, Salt Lake district manager for the Social Security Administration. "We want to know about it. If there's a problem, I want to know what happened. I don't want to learn about it when I read about it in the paper."