Opportunities and Challenges for the Social Security Administration

Social Security’s Office of Inspector General (“OIG”) recently released a report entitled, “Opportunities and Challenges for SSA.” OIG’s terminology for the title of the report is too nice, in my opinion. It should be called “Grim and Dismal outlook for the Social Security Administration.”

The OIG notes that the Social Security Administration (“SSA”) is understaffed and underfunded. As such, the SSA has had to give priority to some tasks while giving less attention to others. It is not new to consumers and advocates that the OIG reports that under-funding, increased workloads, and the economic downturn “have resulted in severe backlogs in some critical workloads – and unacceptably long wait times for customers who seek SSA’s assistance at some of the most challenging times of their lives.”

The report examines SSA’s multiple program areas. I will highlight some of the items of interest.

National 800 number

The report notes that the Social Security Commissioner has reported a deterioration in the service provided by the SSA’s staff when consumers call the national 800 number. This is not surprising and mirrors my own experience when I have tried calling that number. “The Commissioner indicated nearly 15 percent of callers to SSA’s National 800 number receive a busy signal. As a result, many of the customers who were unable to conduct their business over the National 800 number chose to go to their local field office, which contributed to the higher field office waiting time.” The OIG recommends that the SSA receive funding to better support the 800 national number.

Field Office Wait Times

The Commissioner recently testified that in fiscal year 2008, the field offices served 854,000 visitors a week. In February 2009 field offices saw an average of 940,000 visitors a week. If any of you have been to a local field office lately, you know from first-hand experience that you experienced a long wait. The OIG recommends that SSA receive funding to staff the field offices.

ODAR

Finally, what we know is happening is that waiting times at ODAR are getting longer. The report states that the current case backlog is about 765,000 which has resulted in individuals waiting on average about 500 days to receive a disability decision. “Wait times for a decision have increased by about 200 days in the last 7 years.”

The report notes that with funding SSA has received this year, they plan to hire 157 ALJs and support staff to assist.

While recommending ways the SSA can reduce inefficiency and fraud in some areas, the OIG also recommends that SSA be more fully funded in order to better serve the public. Unfortunately, given the current economic situation, it does not appear that SSA is going to receive what it needs in the immediate future.

Six tips to prepare for your Social Security disability hearing

I would like to give you some of the tips I use in preparing my clients for their Social Security hearings in front of Administrative Law Judges (“ALJs”).   In Social Security hearings, the claimant does most of the talking, not the lawyer.  It is very unlike any court room drama you may have seen on television.

  1. Dress appropriately. For further details on how to dress, see my previous blog entry on how to dress for your Social Security disability hearing.
  2. Do not answer a question unless you understand it completely. When answering questions, make sure you understand what is asked.  Sometimes judges (and lawyers as well) do not ask questions clearly.  It is perfectly fine to ask the judge to repeat the question or to rephrase it.
  3. Look at the judge when answering the questions. The judge is trying to determine the answers to two questions:  1) Are you telling the truth?  And, 2) Are you disabled?  The judge will look carefully at how you are answering the questions in order to determine  your credibility.  Answer clearly and look directly in the judge’s eyes when answering.  Even if using an interpreter, look at the judge when answering.
  4. Speak clearly in a loud enough voice to be heard at the other end of the room. There are microphones in the hearing room but they are not there to make your voice louder; they are used for the recording of the hearing.  In order for the judge to hear you, you need to speak a little louder than you would in a normal conversation.  Also, because the hearing is recorded, it is best to speak louder so that a good recording is made.  If you need to appeal the case later, the recording will be turned into a written transcript.  You want to be sure that the transcriber can hear you so that it is known what you said.
  5. Completely describe the body part that hurts or is in pain. Because your hearing is recorded, you cannot say, “It hurts here.”  Although obvious during the hearing where “here” may be if you are pointing at it, it is not obvious later when reading the transcript.  Be sure to specify that your left shoulder hurts or you have right leg pain that extends from your knee down to your toes.  Sometimes a lawyer or a judge will make the record clear by stating what you are pointing to but in case you are not represented, you will need to specify this yourself.
  6. Be polite, but firm.  You should show respect to the ALJ by being polite,  but remember this is also your day in court that you have waited two years for.  If you are in the middle of answering a question and the Judge cuts you off in mid-sentence, it is perfectly fine to say, “Excuse me, your honor I would like to finish my sentence.”  Certainly there are time limitations, but if you are in the middle of something that you think is crucial to your case, you certainly have a right to finish your thoughts.

I cannot guarantee you will win at your hearing with my tips but at least you will be better prepared.  Good luck!

San Rafael Office of Disability Review and Adjudication will be closed on December 26, 2008.

The San Rafael hearing office, Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (“ODAR”), will be closed on the day after Christmas, December 26, 2008.    By Executive Order,  President Bush has ordered all federal agencies to be closed on the 26th.

The San Rafael hearing office has jurisdiction over the following field offices located in these counties:  Lake, Marin, Menodcino, Napa, Santa Rosa, Solano, and Sonoma.