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."

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.