Thursday, September 25, 2008

Social Security Commissioner Releases New Agency Strategic Plan

Today, the Social Security Administration officially released a glossy five-year plan, identifying challenges and offering agency goals. Timing is interesting as the recent hearings on Capitol Hill requested long term planning. The goals are ambitious and the devil in the details. We will look closer in the days to come. However, getting a disability decision in 20 days at the initial level appears the greatest challenge. The Hearings backlog is mentioned with the usual techno and staffing solutions which also merits more discussion. The Appeals council backlog will be monitored and the details seem sparse. Regardless, for a preview, follow the link below, to the agency's site where the plan resides in full.

New Agency Strategic Plan

Monday, September 15, 2008

September 16, 2008 - Another SSA Congressional Hearing

Tomorrow there will be another hearing on the unconscionable back log of SSA disability claims. Claimants will be described as “mired in a Nixon-era process” The same refrains will fill the air; Congress hasn't adequately funded Social Security for years; 80 million baby boomers have overwhelmed the system, and there are not enough employees. Not enough support staff, not enough judges, not enough disability examiners and too few SSA field office workers. We will be reminded the backlog is not because people are cheating the system and not because they don't qualify for benefits. Rather, we will be reminded that what is needed is more money from Congress and the White House, who together are polling between 9% and 20% approval with American tax payers. They are an easy target and they will be reminded that taxpayers can no longer “put off a major reform of the disability claims process any longer.” Commissioner Astrue will be criticized for more of the same incentives and streamlining that the SSA routinely proffers, even though he has been the first Commissioner in 15 years to get funding adequately increased, more ALJs hired and finally held at least somewhat accountable. There will be a hue and cry for Americans who need disability benefits. Certainly we will be told that Social Security needs to be fixed, and fixed quickly.

But what we are unlikely to hear is the word quality. Zen and the art of disability claim adjudication. We will not hear about the wide variance of allowance rates and program inconsistencies across the nation. We will not likely hear that the initial claims filed by those alleging disability are more often than not denied, leading to appeals which are less likely but still far too often dismissed by judges when they should be allowed. We will not likely hear about an Appeals Council that reviews these ALJ denials, only to reverse very few and doing so without offering claimants specific reasons. Listen for the word training. But don’t expect a discussion regarding the concept of adequate training for SSA employees who need to get it right the first time the claimant walks in the field office, the first disability decision an examiner makes and the first hearing a judge presides over.

We can not buy or blame our way out of this unconscionable back log by pointing to lawmakers and demographics and demanding a quick fix. We need to provide adequate funding, but more importantly hold the agency accountable for making the right decision at the right time. Quality decisions, adequately trained staff, accountable judges and appeals level decision makers who render consistent and open decisions are basic tenets that should not be smoldering in the background. Adequate funding must be accompanied by quality performance – simply making the right decisions more than the wrong ones is a concept the agency needs to own and the critics need to grasp.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

“Unconscionable backlog & untold suffering” - Congress takes a look at SSA's hearing offices.

In a press release today, entitled Clearing the Disability Backlog, the Subcommittee on Social Security's Chairman McNulty announced a Hearing on the Performance of Social Security Administration Appeals Hearing Offices. We provide some of the salient points of the release below, including the focus of the hearing which will be on the performance of SSA’s hearing offices, factors that affect productivity, initiatives SSA is taking to increase efficiency and productivity, and other approaches to improving productivity without compromising the quality and impartiality of decision-making or the due process rights of claimants.The hearing will take place on Tuesday, September 16, 2008, in room B-318 Rayburn House Office Building, beginning at 10:00 a.m.

In announcing the hearing, Chairman McNulty said, “Earlier hearings have demonstrated that prolonged underfunding has resulted in the loss of staff needed to process disability cases at the Social Security Administration. This has led to an unprecedented backlog of unprocessed claims and untold suffering. The agency must have the resources it needs to eliminate this unconscionable backlog., [ emphasis added.] At the same time, we must ensure that SSA uses these resources as effectively as possible. This hearing will examine SSA’s management of its hearing offices, and explore measures that can be taken to improve productivity without compromising the right of claimants to a fair and impartial decision on their case.Over the past several years, SSA’s disability claims backlogs have grown to unprecedented levels, with more than 1.3 million Americans currently awaiting a decision regarding their claim. Backlogs are particularly severe for the more than 765,000 Americans who have had their cases denied at an earlier stage of the process and have requested a hearing before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ). These individuals now wait an average of 532 days for a decision on their appeal. This hearing will focus on the performance of SSA’s hearing offices and SSA’s overall management of these offices.

SSA’s hearing process is an important one for claimants..[a]pproximately two-thirds of those who appeal to the ALJ level are awarded benefits. However, the process is very labor intensive for SSA, typically requiring clerical staff to prepare the case file, obtain evidence and schedule the hearing with all necessary experts and other participants; ALJs to review the case, conduct the hearing, and make a decision; and attorneys or paralegals to draft the decision and accompanying legal rationale for it, based on the judge’s instructions.

According to a recent report from SSA’s Inspector General (IG), the productivity of SSA’s hearing process has improved in recent years. In 2005, SSA produced 421 dispositions per ALJ. By 2007, productivity had increased by 13 percent, to 474 dispositions per ALJ. However, hearing office performance varies significantly between offices. The IG found that productivity was often hindered by a lack of hearing office support staff, a conclusion the IG had also reached in a March 2005 report. Interviews with ALJs and hearing office staff also identified other factors that could affect productivity, including the use of a number of techniques to promote speedier processing (such as spending less time reviewing the case and conducting the hearing). Finally, the IG found that a small number of ALJs – approximately 1 percent – processed fewer than 200 cases per year even though they were employed as full-time adjudicators. At the same time, the IG reported that some judges – about 2 percent – issued more than 1,000 decisions in a year. This could raise concerns about the quality of these decisions.