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More Delays in Getting Social Security Disability

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) is experiencing its worst performance in its history. Despite an aggressive “attack” on the disability backlog, SSA has only managed to reduce its “aged” cases (cases pending more than 1,000 days) while allowing the overall backlog of cases awaiting hearings to increase nearly to the 750,000 mark. This, of course, is while SSA must continually address 2.5 million SSD claims and 2.3 million SSI new claims each year.

It has become very obvious that SSA has failed to prepare for the known, predicted large increase in applications due to the aging “Baby Boomer” generation comprising one-quarter of the U.S. population. The staffing situation at SSA is at its lowest since 1974 due to budget constraints and retirement of existing employees. The most discomfiting statistic is that SSA is only replacing one employee for every two that retire during the worst crush of claims in its history. By October 1, 2007, there will have been a loss of 4,000 positions with only hiring of 1,000 replacements due to reduced Congressional funding. This will be made only worse by the expected retirement of over 40% of claims representatives by the year 2010. While the employment situation worsens, SSA plans to close field offices throughout the country, particularly in areas with declining populations. This will make it only more difficult for the nearly 850,000 person who visit these offices each week to receive much needed assistance. These closures, in turn, will lead to even more phone calls to the overburdened call center which receives 68 million calls annually.

This situation was recently addressed by SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue in his 10/2/07 press release which calls the budget constraints imposed on SSA “counterintuitive” in light of the “unprecedented workloads” which “continue to grow at an increasing rate.” Given current appropriations, there will be a scaling back of services and/or facilities. With the upcoming demographic surge of baby boomer retirees, SSA will be encouraging greater use of online and automated telephone information services.

In response to this impending administrative meltdown, the United States Congress has proposed $100M in funding over that requested by the White House. This is in response to the SSA’s budget of $9.6B for 2008 fiscal operations which will not meet projected expenditures. SSA had requested $10.44B in operations funding. Congress does not permit dipping into the SSA trust fund for funding of current operations and therefore must increase appropriations or SSA will not be able to maintain its current state of operation.

But, until the budget process is rectified and new workers are hired and trained, SSA will continue to operate in its current inefficient ways. One officer with the American Federation of Government Employees specializing in Social Security field operations stated: “It is like a disaster here. We can’t do the work we are getting.”

After spending several years and millions of dollars developing the Disability Service Improvement (DSI) system of claims processing, SSA’s new commissioner is expressing doubts about further implementation of this process. At present, DSI system has only been implemented in the New England area only.

Recently, new regulations have been sent the Office of Management and Budget to amend the proposed system. The DSI system plans to implement some aspects of the Quick Disability Determination process for initial determination of claims despite many technical problems in making this work. The report from the New England project reveals that only 3% of claims were approved at the initial claim processing stage. Despite these poor results, the program is being extended to Arizona, New Jersey, and North Dakota as part of a national roll-out of this program. The new regulation will permit a longer evaluation period than the 20 day period originally imposed by this program. Further, despite a Freedom of Information Act request, the exact methods of determination have not been made public. Rather, SSA has hidden behind its vendor and allowed a claim of “proprietary information” to continue to prevent disclosure of the guidelines which have been developed for initial consideration of claims.

SSA has also proposed the formation of a National Hearing Center (NHC) in which a centralized team of administrative law judges will use video hearing technology to hear cases in the most backlogged jurisdictions in the country. The recruiting process for hiring the 150 judges and support staff required for the NHC is not expected to begin until Spring, 2008. This represents the only new hiring by SSA for fiscal year 2008.

Whereas, the second step in the system involving Federal Review Officials may be scrapped despite hiring of hundreds of workers who have been training to perform this role. Instead, SSA has implemented an amended Attorney Advisor Program which allows attorneys to review selected cases and recommend approval of claims at the reconsideration stage of claims processing. It remains unknown whether the Appeals Council will remain or eliminated with the Decision Review Board to be implemented as previously proposed.

Despite creation and nationwide implementation of the e-DIB electronic folder system for paperless transmission of claims files, many offices lack the personnel to scan documents. Therefore, this initiative has also been stalled causing reduced productivity.

This news does not bode well for claimants awaiting hearings, but may be even worse for newly disabled persons who are now filing or will be filing their disability claims. With the average processing speed for claims at 528 days and climbing, it means hard times for some of this society’s neediest citizens.
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