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An Update on the Increasing Backlog of Social Security Disability Cases

Recently the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Michael Astrue, commented on eliminating the backlog and expediting cases for those Americans in need of disability benefits. He stated that it was the Administration’s “moral imperative” to find some solution. Commissioner Astrue has been actively testifying before Congress on decreasing the large backlog of cases awaiting hearings. He stated that reducing the backlog is an “effort (that) will take several years.” Many have been left wondering what caused things have gotten so out of hand in the first place. A significant cause of the backlog has to do with budget cuts resulting in less Administration staff. The current backlog is at 750,000 hearing requests still waiting to be set on a judge’s calendar. 

Judges

While the disability cases awaiting hearings doubled in the last 10 years, the Administration lost 10 percent of its judges. In the last few years, the processing time for hearings has increased by 200 days. In response, the Administration has planned to hire 175 administrative law judges this fiscal year and has already made job offers to 145 judges. Commissioner Astrue also had many favorable things to say about President Bush’s fiscal 2009 budget request of $10.3 billion for SSA. This money would presumably help reduce the hearings backlog by more than 67,000 in one year.

However, there has been some criticism of Astrue’s purposed plans to reduce the backlog. Ronald Bernoski, a judge for 27 years and president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges, testified that hiring more judges will not completely solve the backlog problems. He stated that no judge would be able to produce decisions quickly and efficiently without adequate and competent staff support. Bernoksi says “hir(ing) 175 new judges without hiring the necessary staff is like buying 175 new trucks but only enough fuel to operate 20 of those trucks…under these circumstances, the average productivity per truck or per judge can only decline.”

Subcommittee Chairman for the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, David Obey, D-Wis., questioned whether the backlog was due to lack of staff or from lack of productivity among administrative law judges and their staffs. Patrick O'Carroll, inspector general for SSA, testified on the lack of productivity among judges. In fiscal 2006, reports indicated that the range of decisions processed per judge was from 40 to 1,805. This means that while efficient judges were processing 150 cases a month, some were able to process only 3. About 30 percent of judges processed fewer than 400 cases last year, far less than the minimum of 500 expected by the agency. This is alarming, considering that Commissioner Astrue has stated that the current law prevents him from disciplining judges who don’t produce at SSA goal levels.

Technology

In addition to hiring more judges, SSA has created technological reforms to expedite decisions. In October 2007, the Administration began its “Quick Disability Determination (QDD)” program, which utilizes the electronic processing of claims and includes a tool to quickly identify claims with a high probability to be awarded. The cases that go through QDD have a 21 day processing time. A study on the effectiveness of this program in the Boston regions revealed that for cases selected for a QDD review, the average time to get a favorable decision was 11 days. According to SSA, the program has worked so well that it will be implemented nationwide.

In December of 2007, the “Compassionate Allowances” program was proposed. This program aims to get children and adults with serious, rare diseases on disability benefits much faster. With the introduction of these new programs, Astrue hopes to reduce the growing backlog of disability cases.

Reintroduction of the Attorney Advisor Program

On March 3, 2008 a new rule that reintroduces the old Attorney Advisor Program was put into place. The Attorney Advisor program modifies pre-hearing procedures such that it now allows certain attorney advisors employed by the Administration to conduct pre-hearing proceedings, and where appropriate, issue fully favorable decisions. Attorney advisors have performed these duties in the past, specifically between 1995 and 2001 when this program was first introduced. With the significant increase in the request for hearings in the recent years, this program as been reinstated in order to expedite cases and reduce the backlog.

Overall it seems as though several different programs have been initiated or proposed by the Administration to handle the increasing backlog, and we should expect a more productive and efficient year. Commissioner Astrue has promised, “by the end of fiscal 2009, SSA will have laid the groundwork for regulatory and process changes needed and will be driving waiting times down.”

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