Sensationalistic Journalism Misses the Point
On Sunday, October 19, 2014, The Washington Post ran a front page story concerning the Social Security Disability backlog entitled "The Biggest backlog in the Federal Government." The article is written from a sensationalistic perspective and spends more time trying to be provocative rather than accurate.
This article states that 990,399 disability cases pending hearing and that the average delay for disposition of a case in 442 days. These facts are true. The characterization that this problem exists within a "single office" in ridiculously inaccurate as Social Security has 168 hearing offices for this purpose which employ approximately 1445 Administrative Law Judges (ALJs).
The article is quick to make the generic and unsupported criticism that there is a "pile up of outdated rules and oddball procedures" without citing any specific examples. Only later does it address the modernization of processes at the hearing office which include paperless documentation and video hearings undertaken to relieve the case backlog.
Instead of gathering accurate information or discussing this matter with informed persons, the Post quoted an obviously disgruntled ALJ who stated that her decisions were no more accurate "than flipping a coin." Such an attitude should be a grounds for dismissal and not quoting. This is blatantly misleading as there is a well developed body of law replete with thousands of regulations, Social Security Rulings, and reported decisions by which to make accurate and informed disability determinations. I will agree with the fact that there are ALJs who hold such a poor attitude, but they are in the minority. Bad employees exist in every organization. The Social Security Administration is no exception to this rule.
In citing an example of an individual made to wait seven years to receive benefits, the writer of this piece failed to explain the underlying circumstances for the need for appeals and eventual payment of disability benefits.
The article goes on to cite SSA's party line that there is a large new influx of cases due to the aging baby boomers and a lack of funding to address this. The article is quick to point out that the backlog began in 1975 pegged at 105,000 cases at that much earlier date without ever being cleared. This backlog has continued to grow to nearly the one million case backlog present now. The article is also correct in citing that numerous reforms have been attempted without success.
The underlying friction between the SSA and its judiciary is mentioned. ALJs complain about receiving harassing emails. A "flaw" in the system was identified in that favorable decisions take less write-up that benefit denials, inferring that more benefits were being paid than were due. This is nonsense. All the ALJs have decision writers who prepare decisions from templates. The denials make take a little longer, but not much. Such a suggestion that ALJs approve cases just to make their lives easier masks the fact that there are many ALJs with incredibly low case approval rates (less than 20% in contrast to their peer average of 44%) who seem to have no problem cranking out one denial after another.
It is very clear that the Post has written more of a hatchet piece rather than pursuing a better researched article. This is cost of needing a front page piece of journalistic sensationalism to sell papers rather than setting forth an accurate presentation of the issues which this once venerable paper had received past acclaim.