SSA chief says financial crisis is increasing claims backlog
Commissioner blames the tough economy for inflating the disability claims caseload by 10 percent.
The Social Security Administration is facing an influx of new disability claims due to the struggling economy, a factor impeding its ability to reduce a backlog of 765,000 hearing requests, the agency's commissioner said on Friday.
In an interview with Government Executive, Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue said the tough economy has increased the disability claims caseload by about 10 percent -- or 250,000 cases -- more than the agency had projected and budgeted for. He said SSA also has its hands tied when it comes to hiring new staff to address the increase in claims, largely because it is operating on a continuing resolution through March, which provides funding at fiscal 2008 levels.
"Help is already too late," he said. "The tidal wave is hitting us, and we don't have the money to staff up appropriately."
SSA has viewed the reduction of its disability claims backlog as imperative, as processing times for disability hearings have increased by 200 days during the last seven years and have adversely affected many applicants seeking disability benefits. While the backlog started leveling off in 2008, Astrue said, the financial crisis and an increase of baby boomers filing for retirement benefits have stymied the agency's ability to tackle the accumulation of hearing requests.
Astrue expressed some hope at the prospect of additional funding in the $819 billion stimulus package that Congress is debating. The House version of the bill, which that chamber passed on Wednesday, would provide $500 million to SSA for two years in fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2010 to help address the disability case backlog. The legislation also would provide $400 million to create a new computer facility to keep up with new responsibilities and heavier workloads, he said.
But Witold Skwierczynski, president of the American Federation of Government Employees' National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals, said on Wednesday that the union has some concerns with the construction of a new computer facility, largely because it thinks the building's high price tag could be put to better use, such as reducing the hearings backlog, hiring additional staff and improving telephone customer service operations.
"The whole point of the stimulus package is to create jobs and spending," Skwierczynski said. "We could hire more SSA employees to do the additional workloads we're getting because of the economic downturn. We'll never get rid of these backlogs unless we have more staff."
Astrue said the agency plans to hire up to 155 additional administrative law judges this fiscal year to help address the backlog and influx of cases. In March, the Office of Personnel Management -- the agency charged with reviewing applications and screening potential ALJs -- will reopen the examination process and submit qualified candidates to SSA for review, he said. But because the new judges need to be hired, relocated and trained, Astrue said, they likely won't start contributing to reducing the backlog until next year. The agency currently employs about 1,200 ALJs.
The commissioner said the $500 million proposed in the stimulus package also would be used to hire additional ALJ support staff. The support staff-to-judge ratio now stands at 4.4-to-1, but the agency hopes to use the stimulus funding to increase the ratio to about 4.6-to-1, he said.
SSA also will look to the stimulus money to improve telephone services and wait times at field offices across the country, since demand for these services is picking up because of the tough economy, Astrue said. "The thing that's saving us is we have a big uptick in people using online services," he said. "Retirement applications are being filed online at a much higher level than they've been historically. That's a saving grace for us."
Meanwhile, SSA also has invested heavily in technology to help accelerate the disability case process. For example, the agency's two-track system -- comprising the Quick Disability Determination program and the Compassionate Allowances initiative -- now is expediting about 4 percent of all disability cases, an increase from the 2.7 percent of cases fast-tracked in 2008. Astrue said the dual process allows 100,000 to 125,000 Americans with the most severe disabilities to be approved in about 10 days instead of waiting the typical three to four months for an initial decision.
The Quick Disability Determination program allows electronic exchange of claims and includes a screening tool to identify those claims in which a high probability exists that the claimant is disabled, while the Compassionate Allowances system expedites processing for claimants with medical conditions so severe that their conditions by definition meet SSA's standards.
Darryl Perkinson, president of the Federal Managers Association, said on Friday that the new two-track system will enable the agency to focus on citizens who need immediate help. "If successful, this initiative should slightly lighten the caseload at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review, as these cases will be approved at the first level of the disability claim process and therefore not reach the hearings stage," he said.
Astrue said SSA also is using a system called iAppeals, which enables attorneys to file disability appeals online, rather than submitting them to a district office where staff must input information manually. The iAppeals process can shave six weeks off the processing time, he said.
The agency also is piloting a program at a Boston hospital that uses electronic health records for faster transfer of medical information in disability cases. While SSA wants to expand the program, it does not have the funding to do so, nor do hospitals have the money needed upfront to convert health records to an electronic format, Astrue said. "This reduces the cost and labor for the hospital, and it results in enormously huge savings for us in terms of time and people."