OPM pledges to help speed hiring of Social Security judges

A top government official has pledged that by late October, her agency will have developed a list of qualified applicants from which the Social Security Administration can hire judges to help reduce a record backlog of disability appeals.

Office of Personnel Management Director Linda Springer told members of a House Ways and Means subcommittee that her agency was working aggressively to have a new slate of potential administrative law judges ready by the fall.

Drawing alternately on emotional and professional arguments, lawmakers challenged Springer and Michael Astrue, recently confirmed as commissioner of SSA, to make good on claims that they could cut into the number of disability benefit applicants awaiting adjudication.

SSA has experienced a shortage of the administrative law judges, or ALJs, who adjudicate appeals of disability benefit decisions, since a lawsuit froze OPM's hiring process for the position in 1999. Since then, OPM has refreshed its pool of eligible candidates by confirming that those listed were still interested in taking the job, but has added few new candidates.

Faced with sharp questions from Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., Springer acknowledged that some candidates had been added to the list as far back as 1993. She said only 10 to 15 percent had joined in this decade.

Springer said she recently has pushed to move as quickly as possible in recruiting new candidates based on an application developed after the legal challenges were resolved in 2003, and that candidates will be added to the list in late October when testing and interviewing is complete.

"Everyone at OPM would have wanted to see a faster process," Springer said. She suggested that agencies' successful hiring of 560 ALJs from the roster over the past several years had probably convinced OPM officials that they could take the time to be "more deliberate" in developing the revised application.

Pomeroy said similar assurances that a new list was imminent have been made in the past, quoting descriptions of delays and estimates that the process was about a year from completion in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Springer agreed to update subcommittee staff on a monthly basis from now until the new candidate list is complete.

After challenging Springer, lawmakers did not spare Astrue, asking him why the administration has not moved more aggressively to hire from the old list or find other ways of resolving cases.

Astrue testified that Social Security has worked hard to resolve those cases in which applicants had waited 1,000 days or more for a hearing, and has cut that number from 65,525 last October to 17,966 as of last week. But he said that despite making a record number of decisions last year, the agency lost ground and has more than 730,000 cases pending.

He said that over the past several years, funding has been a greater constraint than the ALJ candidate roster. He said appropriations repeatedly have fallen short of the president's budget request, and that he has been meeting with appropriators to make the case for full funding in the next budget cycle.

He said the productivity of some of the ALJs, who essentially receive lifetime appointments, also has been a concern, and that the agency is working to modernize its systems and make better use of technology.

The agency hopes to hire 150 additional ALJs in the coming budget year. Pomeroy questioned whether that would be sufficient to handle the record backlog, urging the commissioner to "think more aggressively than that." But Astrue said 150 new judges would be a challenge to train in one year, and that funds for more hiring could be requested later.

Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, D-Ohio, attacked Astrue for the agency's failure to fix the problem, and invited him to Cleveland to explain the problems to her constituents.

Describing the heartbreak he experiences facing impoverished, disabled constituents, some of whom wait three or four years for a decision on their case, Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich., noted that about two-thirds of those appeals ultimately would be vindicated. "I don't know how you live with yourselves," he said to the witnesses.

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