Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Plan to eliminate backlogs for SSDI and SSI hearings.

The Social Security Administration under Commissioner Astrue has announced its strategic goal for eliminating hearings backlog and preventing its recurrence. It stated goals are to reduce the number of pending hearings to 466,000 by fiscal year 2013. Reduce the time it takes an individual to receive a hearing decision to an average of 270 days. Increase productivity by automating labor-intensive tasks necessary to issue a hearing decision and establish standardized electronic hearings business processes.

Presently over 750,000 individuals are waiting for a hearing on their disability applications. The average wait time for individual at the hearing stage for Social Security disability benefits is 500 days to receive a decision. This wait time is clearly unacceptable for those who are disabled and have no income and have to wait 500 days to get a decision. It is good to see that the Social Security Administration is putting a great deal of time, effort, and money into the problem. The SSA plan to reduce this backlog includes increased funding to employ new workers and upgrade technology.

Their first objective is to increase capacity to hear and decide cases. They plan to do this by increasing the number of ALJ's and support staff at the hearing level. They also plan to screen hearing request to quickly identify possible allowances before hearing is even scheduled. They also plan to increase the use of video hearings and make use of SSA's two new National Hearing Centers. These National Hearing Centers were set up to help reduce severely backlog hearing offices by conducting hearings from the centers by video conference.

SSA's second objective is to improve their workload management practices throughout the hearing process. They plan to do this by streamlining and automating case tasks. This will be done by the increased use of software technology. Also part of his plan is to eliminate temporary hearing sites. In my opinion, this may help reduce costs and efficiency within the Social Security Administration, however, it will cause additional burden on claimants who may have to travel further for their hearings. They also plan to establish standardized electronic hearing business processes. This again appears to rely heavily on the usage of new technologies. They also plan to prevent unintended backlogs. The effort here appears to be based on reducing the amount of time it takes for the Appeals Council to review hearing decisions.

It will be interesting to see if social security is able to reach its goals but at the very least it at least appears like they have a feasible plan in place to help reduce the backlogs. From my experience the past year has shown a sharp increase in the number of cases decided before a hearing is even scheduled. This alone should help in reducing the wait times for claimants at the hearing stage for their Social Security Disability claims. There was one thing not specifically mentioned in the report and that is, that soon lawyers will be able to access their files at the hearing level over the Internet. I am a part of a pilot program and I am presently using that system. I believe this too will have a significant impact on reducing the backlog because cases will be better prepared so that a proper determination can be made at the hearing level. The earlier a lawyer is able to access his clients files, then the earlier he can see what is in the file and what is missing. A lawyer can then help identify cases that should be decided favorably without a hearing by sending in a pre-hearing brief. I have been handling Social Security disability cases for many years and I can honestly say that SSA has made significant strides in improving the process. The only question is whether it will be enough to reduce backlogs given the sharp increase in cases due to the baby boomer population and the struggling economy.
For more information on Social Security's new initiatives see http://www.ssa.gov/asp/index.htm

For more information on Social Security Disability Hearings see my website page on what you can expect when you finally do get a hearing.