SSA staying on top of claims increase

Commissioner Astrue tells House committee that despite the recession, the agency still plans on reducing its disability claims backlog. SSA using a combination ...

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Like many large organizations, the Social Security Administration is feeling the effects of the country’s recession.

The number of Americans applying for disability benefits is rising. Michael Astrue, SSA’s commissioner, expects the agency to process more than 3.1 million claims in 2010. That is up 25 percent from 2008, and it would be the second year in a row the number of cases topped 3 million.

Additionally, the number of initial claims for disability benefits will hit a million this year-almost the same as in 2009 and up from 780,000 in 2008.

But despite the rising numbers, Astrue told a joint hearing of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security and Income Security and Family Support Tuesday that SSA remains on track to eliminate the backlog of hearings and dramatically reduce the backlog of cases by 2013.

“We were steadily reducing Disability Determination Services processing times until we began receiving additional recession related claims and we’ve held the pending level well below our original projections,” Astrue says. “For the first time since 2005, we reduced the number of pending hearings to under 700,000. In just over a year, we have driven the pending cases down by 10 percent despite the increase in hearing requests.”

SSA’s handling of disability claims has been problematic for years. The Government Accountability Office put the program on its bi-annual High Risk list in 2003 and it has remained there. Congress has held numerous hearings trying to figure out what they can do to encourage SSA to improve its efforts.

Astrue says the agency finally is heading in the right direction. He says last fall GAO said SSA’s strategy to reduce the disability claims backlog was sound.

“GAO found we had a 78 percent chance of eliminating the hearings backlog by 2013,” he says. “Despite the surge of claims, we are on track to eliminate the hearings backlog in 2013 and reduce the disability claims pending to pre-recession levels to no later than 2014.”

SSA is taking several steps to meet their goals. First, Astrue says the agency is hiring more than 3,000 new employees to process claims. Second, it’s implementing several new technologies to make the applications more user friendly for citizens, and improve back end systems. And third, SSA has streamlined business processes and updated program rules.

“Online disability claims has increased by 130 percent in two years,” he says. “We are building a common disability case processing system that will replace old programming language in each of the 54 Disability Determination Services. This Web based system will be the foundation for a state-of-the-art disability process.”

The system also will aid examiners as they approve disability claims. Astrue says SSA expects every Disability Determination Services (DDS) to have this new tool by April 2011.

For long term planning, Astrue says SSA is updating its strategic plan.

“We started up the process again to match anticipated workloads against our current capacity to figure out what we need to do differently,” he says. “The new report should ready in the January February 2011 timeframe.”

While SSA is surviving the increase in work, the state agencies that receive federal funding to process the claims still are having a tough time.

Committee members say furloughs of state employees are causing SSA’s backlogs to increase.

Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) testified before the committee about the impact of the furloughs in his state.

“New cases sit on shelves for two months before being assigned to an analyst adding significant waiting time to the overall process,” he says. “There are 40,000 cases sitting on the shelves of the California DDS offices and the number is growing by 1,000 each week.”

Filner drafted legislation to federalize state disability claims workers because of the delays the furloughs are causing.

“This is not a perfect solution, but I think if you took this up and passed it, it would send a wake-up call to governors across the country who insist of pursuing the illogical and counterproductive policy of furloughing DDS employees,” Filner says. “We are hurting the very people we are charged to help.”

Astrue did not readily support the draft bill. Instead, he says the subcommittee should study other options in between the status quo and federalizing these workers. He did say, however, that the furloughs were affecting the backlog in places such as Michigan, California and Nevada.

Part of the way SSA wants to address these challenges is by reinstituting the reconsideration process. This is where a citizen who has denied disability benefits appeals the decision. SSA discontinued the reconsideration process and these appeals went right to administrative law judges to decide. But now Astrue wants to bring the process back, specifically to Michigan, which has the largest backlog in the country. SSA wants to spend $20 million to get this process started again.

“We can get more benefits to people faster,” he says. “If we don’t spend money up front to make more decisions better, then we will pay a lot more to add more hearing offices in Michigan.”

Lawmakers were concerned about the bringing the reconsideration process back because many believe it will make the already lengthy process longer, not shorter.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) asks Astrue if there as a better way to spend the $20 million it would cost to bring reconsideration back in Michigan.

And Astrue found little support from his own inspector general as well.

“In general by reinstating the reconsideration step, some individuals will get their allowance decision sooner, but more will get it later,” says Patrick O’Carroll, SSA’s IG.

He adds the IG’s assessment found that if someone is denied at the claimant level, they will get reconsider allowance decision 486 days sooner. However if the claimant is denied at reconsideration, it would take 153 days longer than the current process to go to hearing than those who go without reconsideration at all.

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