The Social Security Administration (SSA) is under a lot of scrutiny these days – from how to keep the federal program strong for future generations – to how it is managing the disability claims backlog with less budget money. A hearings backlog analysis report and a media firestorm over Administrative Law Judges are among SSA’s most recent challenges.
Backlog Volume vs. Wait Times
An analysis of SSA’s hearing backlog reduction efforts released by a Syracuse University data research organization states that there has been a five percent jump in cases caught in the backlog this past year.
According to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), the jump in pending claims is because there are more people with disabilities who cannot find jobs. According to the report, “History shows that if this growth is unchecked, as hearing dockets become more and more clogged, wait times will grow.”
However, SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue has criticized the report, which focuses on numbers of people filing for disability benefits instead of SSA’s improved efficiencies in processing claims.
Astrue, in an SSA statement released on June 20, calls the report “sloppy and irresponsible. It focuses on the wrong measures, ignores the tremendous progress we have made in addressing the disability hearing backlog, and reaches the incorrect conclusion that we are ‘faltering.’” He further states that the TRAC report “bears little relevance to the public’s experience,” which has been a reduction in wait times as the number of people waiting over 270 days has consistently fallen since 2008.
Fewer Dollars for SSA Backlog Plan
While making progess on wait times, SSA set a goal to reduce the average wait times to hear disability cases from the national average of 367 days to 270 days by 2013. But SSA has had to deal with budget cuts this year, thwarting plans to open eight new hearing offices, and forcing layoffs of SSA employees, which could slow things down. In a USA Today article about the growing backlog, Astrue said, “I think we will continue to make progress. Whether we will hit the goal on time, I don’t know. I think we will be close.”
It is true that disability claims are rapidly increasing. There are more and more aging baby boomers out of work. And, in these economic times, there are still not enough jobs available for everyone. So people with disabling medical conditions are giving up on finding work and are turning to SSA for disability insurance benefits. The number of claims in the hearing backlog now is hovering around 730,000.
According to Astrue, “Our backlog reduction plan is working and has made a difference to the hundreds of thousands of people waiting on a hearing decision. Without it, the average processing time would be approaching 600 days, and we would be well on our way to 1 million people waiting on a decision.”
Clearly the pressure is on SSA to efficiently reduce the disability claims backlog. A big part of the hearing reduction plan is to hold more hearings, which means hiring more ALJs and opening more hearing offices, if SSA has the budget dollars to do it.
The Disability Hearing Process
SSA’s Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) comprises of 10 regional offices with a number of hearing offices within each region – 161 in total nationally – where approximately 1,300 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) carry out their duties presiding over disability hearings.
The disability hearing is usually the final leg of a long appeals process that provides the disability claimant with the best opportunity for getting approved for benefits. This is a subjective experience for the claimant and judge. The previous steps within the approval process is handled by state Disability Determination Services (DDS) examiners who follow strict, highly technical procedures for deciding if a person has a medical condition that is severe enough to prevent them from working at any job.
At the hearing, the claimant and judge meet face-to-face. The judge asks questions of the claimant and reviews all the case’s medical evidence with fresh eyes. All judges from all regions follow the same criteria to reach decisions. They consider the claimant’s age, education (some regions have lower educational levels overall than others), past relevant work, and remaining functional capacity based on the severity of the disabling conditions. Based on all of these considerations, the judge ultimately decides if the claimant deserves disability benefits. SSA fully expects that every ALJ will make a fair disability decision.
The ALJ Fairness Factor
Are judges fair in their assessment of disability cases?
Because of a recent Wall Street Journal article that put the spotlight on one judge, in one hearing office, for approving all of his cases in the first six months of 2011, some doubts have been raised, begging the question: Is SSA pressuring judges into moving cases through the system as quickly as possible in order to reduce the backlog?
Freedom Disability has gathered data from the Social Security Administration and found that, yes, there are judges with high approval rates.
There are also judges with very low approval rates.
The national average approval rate at the hearing level is 64 percent. However, regional approval rates vary.
ALJ Concerns Ignite Subcommittee Investigation
Are Administrative Law Judges responsibly handling their caseloads of disability cases? The Wall Street Journal article has sparked a bright red flare of concern within the Social Security Subcommittee of the House and Ways Committee.
In a letter to Social Security’s Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll, the Ways and Means Members stated: “We are very concerned about the particulars of this story as well as any potentially similar occurrences that may be taking place elsewhere in the Nation. Over the years, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has made great strides in tackling the hearings backlog, but it is essential that this progress adhere to the Agency’s policies and procedures while also demonstrating good stewardship of precious taxpayer dollars.”
Could there be a reckoning for Administrative Law Judges? Some appear too lenient. Others seem too tough.
Considering our experience as a national disability advocacy group, we know that there are many very good judges who are doing their best to make honest decisions. Our hearing advocates cannot influence which judge is assigned to a case. They focus, instead, on strategizing best ways to present their claimants’ cases to any judge. We would expect nothing more – or less – than fair decisions for our claimants.
Do these extreme approval rates –low and high – reflect fair decisions? We shall see what the Subcommittee discovers.
We will also have to wait and see if SSA’s hearing reduction plan will get the Congressional support it needs. That decision is up to Congress.