The Social Security Administration (“SSA”) recently released its “Performance and Accountability Report” for Fiscal Year 2008. The report is quite detailed but what is of particular interest is SSA’s plan for reducing its hearing backlog. They noted that at the end of fiscal year 2008, over 760,000 individuals were waiting for a hearing and that on an average, an individual waits over 500 days for a decision. These are the highlights of their plan to manage and reduce their backload. (The complete section may be found in the section of their report on agency priorities.)
Increasing their capacity to hear and decide cases
- Eliminate cases pending more than 950 days. They will target their efforts on these long-pending cases over the next year.
- Increase the number of Administrative Law Judges(“ALJs”). Last year they were able to hire 190 ALJs. There is a learning curve of about 9 months so they expect that these judges will be up to speed by fiscal year 2009. They also have hired additional office support staff.
- Opening National Hearing Centers. By having national centers, the SSA can move cases from an over-burdened hearing office to a place where a case can be heard quicker. The technologies of video conferencing and electronic folders make it possible for a case to be heard anywhere.
- Providing additional video hearing equipment.
Improving workload management practices through the hearing process
- Realigning service areas. Due to geographic location, some offices are busier than others. They plan to transfer some of the workload from busier offices to others that are not so busy and perhaps open new offices where people need to be served.
- Increasing automation. Using technology, they plan to make it easier for attorneys and medical providers to submit records electronically. They have already established electronic folders which have made it faster to process files.
- Establishing standardized electronic hearings business practices. This task is in progress but essentially they have reviewed the best practices of several hearing offices and will work out a standard set of best practices that all offices will use. This will reduce inconsistency between the offices and should result in increase productivity.
These steps are certainly steps in the right direction. Social Security is to be commended for permitting their reports to be released to the public and for acknowledging that there are real problems in their backlog. Let’s hope that their plan not only reduces the backlog, but results in fair and consistent decision making.