At the same time, the application process can be a nightmare for legitimate applicants. About two-thirds of initial applications are rejected. Most of these people drop their claims, but for those willing go through an appeals process that can take two years or more, chances are good they eventually will get benefits.
Astrue has pledged to reduce processing times for applicants' appeals, and he has had some success, even as the number of claims skyrockets. The number of people waiting for decisions has increased, but their wait times are going down.
"It's ludicrous to say that the backlog problem is getting worse," Astrue said. "The backlog problem has gotten dramatically better."
Patricia L. Foster said she was working as a nurse in a hospital in Columbia, S.C., in 2005 when she was attacked by a patient who was suffering from a mental illness. Foster, 64, said she injured her neck so bad she had a plate inserted. She said she also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Foster was turned down twice for Social Security disability benefits before finally getting them in 2009, after hiring an Illinois-based company, Allsup, to represent her. She said she was awarded retroactive benefits, though the process was demeaning.
"I have to tell you, when you're told you cannot return to nursing because of your disability, you don't know how long I cried about that," Foster said. "And then Social Security says, 'Oh no, you don't qualify.' You don't know what that does to you emotionally. You have no idea."
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