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“Social Security Benefits America”

SSA’s New 5 Year Strategic Plan for Improvement

This month, the Commissioner of Social Security, Michael J. Astrue, released the Administration’s new Strategic Plan, coined “Social Security Benefits America.” The five-year plan notes the challenges that the Administration faces and identifies the course of action that has been planned to meet those challenges.

The most concerning issues were reviewed and the Administration came up with its top four goals. They are as follows:

  • Eliminate the hearings backlog and prevent its recurrence.
  • Improve the speed and quality of the disability process.
  • Improve retiree and other core services.
  • Preserve the public’s trust in Social Security’s programs.

To meet each of the above goals, the new plan includes specific objectives and outcomes that must be reached. For example, in order to achieve the first goal of eliminating the backlog and preventing its recurrence, the Administration has indicating its plan to increase the capacity to hear and decide cases and improve workload management practices through the hearing process. Two key essentials in achieving this goal are the Administration’s employees and the use of information technology.

Despite many concerns regarding the absence of adequate support staff to help reduce the backlog, Commissioner Astrue has said “our workforce is one of our greatest strengths.” Earlier this year the Administration hired more than 140 additional Administrative Law Judges to its staff, and hopefully this will play a part in eliminating the backlog. Included in the new plan, for the first time in history, individual annual expectations have been established for ALJ’s which request that they produce 500-700 hearing decisions a year. In addition to the request for ALJ productivity, non-ALJ decision makers on staff are being called upon to screen requests for hearings. These non-ALJ’s will be screening hearings requests to check if there are cases that can be approved based on evidence already in the file. If cases are approved early, the hearing becomes unnecessary, and essential time and resources are saved.

As far as technology is concerned, the Administration is at the forefront of utilizing technology to produce faster determinations. At this time, the Administration’s hearing level cases are almost all fully electronic and video-teleconference hearings are being utilized in hearing offices across the country. However, despite the utilization of technology, SSA’s backlog continues to grow. Yet, the Commissioner remains hopeful. He states, “While we have effectively maintained and augmented our systems infrastructure, some of our key computer systems and our primary data center are more than 30 years old. A strong and modern infrastructure requires new investments in technology.”

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