Judges who hear Social Security disability cases are facing a growing number of violent threats from claimants angry over being denied benefits or frustrated at lengthy delays in processing claims.
There were at least 80 threats to kill or harm administrative law judges or staff over the past year -- an 18 percent increase over the previous reporting period, according to data collected by the Social Security Administration.
The data was released to the Association of Administrative Law Judges and made available to The Associated Press.
One claimant in Albuquerque, N.M., called his congressman's office to say he was going to "take his guns and shoot employees" in the Social Security hearing office. In Eugene, Ore., a man who was denied benefits said he is "ready to join the Taliban and hurt some people." Another claimant denied benefits told a judge in Greenville, S.C., that he was a sniper in the military and "would go take care of the problem."
"I'm not sure the number is as significant as the kind of threats being made," said Randall Frye, a judge based in Charlotte, N.C., and the president of the judges' union. "There seem to be more threats of serious bodily harm, not only to the judge but to the judge's family."
Fifty of the incidents came between March and August, including that of a Pittsburgh claimant who threatened to kill herself outside the hearing office or fly a plane into the building like a disgruntled tax protester did earlier this year at the Internal Revenue Service building in Austin, Texas.
A Senate subcommittee heard testimony on Monday at a field hearing in Akron, Ohio, about the rising number of threats, as well as the status of the massive backlog in applications for disability benefits, which are available to people who can't work because of medical problems.
Nearly 2 million people are waiting to find out if they qualify for benefits, with many having to wait more than two years to see their first payment.
Lawmakers told Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue that efforts to trim the backlog haven't done enough to halt personal ordeals for disabled people awaiting government help.
For people in need and awaiting claims, "Your heart goes out to them," Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, said at the hearing.
Astrue said the agency is making progress in cutting waits for decisions on claims, but a 2013 goal of resolving claims within nine months could be jeopardized by rising claims amid the recession and an aging population.
Judges say some claimants become desperate after years of fighting for money to help make ends meet.
"To many of them, we're their last best hope for getting relief in the form of income and medical benefits," said Judge Mark Brown, a vice president of the judge's union and an administrative law judge hearing cases in St. Louis.
While no judges were harmed this year, there have been past incidents: A judge in Los Angeles was hit over the head with a chair during a hearing and a judge in Newburgh, N.Y., was punched by a claimant when he showed up for work.
In January, a gunman possibly upset about a reduction in his Social Security benefits killed a security guard during a furious gunbattle at a Nevada federal courthouse.
About 1,400 administrative law judges handle appeals of Social Security disability claims at about 150 offices across the country. Many are in leased office space rather than government buildings.
Brown said the agency provides a single private security guard for each office building that houses judges. Frye said he has sought more security and a review of the policy that keeps guards out of hearing rooms. He said Astrue has promised to look into it.
Social Security Administration spokeswoman Trish Nicasio said the agency continually evaluates the level and effectiveness of office security and makes changes as needed.
"We are taking appropriate steps to protect our employees and visitors while still providing the level of face-to-face service the public expects and deserves," Nicasio said.
Visitors and their belongings are screened before entering hearing offices and hearing rooms, she said, and reception desks are equipped with duress alarms to notify the guard immediately of any disturbance.
Associated Press Writer Thomas J. Sheeran contributed to this report from Akron, Ohio.
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