From The Oregonian
The slow pace of a few judges and an overwhelmed staff at Portland’s Social Security hearing office are key reasons that people seeking disability benefits here endure some of the longest waits in the nation.
Across the country, it takes an average of 480 days to get a judge’s ruling on a Social Security disability claim — but 650 days if your case is in Portland.
The problems in Portland reflect a broader national crisis, according to Social Security Administration records obtained by The Oregonian under the Freedom of Information Act. Only about half the agency’s administrative law judges here meet its minimum goal of clearing 500 cases a year. Only three of nine Portland judges hit that mark in recent years, agency records show.
Last year, according to the national records, 132 of the agency’s judges — about 11 percent — failed to reach even half of the agency’s goal, dragging out appeals of disability claims as people faced financial ruin, got sicker and even died waiting.
And from a sidebar article
Charles Bridges is Social Security’s billion-dollar judge.
When it comes to paying out disability benefits, no other Social Security judge comes close. Bridges awarded cash to 2,285 people last year — eight times that of the agency’s average judge — and he turns down only a small number of the people who plead for a check.
The cost to taxpayers? More than $2.1 billion for this judge over the last four years.
Bridges, 62, is the chief administrative law judge in the Social Security Administration’s Harrisburg, Pa., hearing office.
Inside Social Security, Bridges is a controversial figure, a symbol of the agency’s desperation to unclog its bottleneck of disability claims at any cost.
Stories about an unnamed judge who pays 2,000-plus cases a year arose in a congressional hearing in February, but the agency has never named him. The Oregonian identified Bridges through internal Social Security records obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. ...
Each time a judge approves a disability case taxpayers will pay out an average of $250,000 in lifetime cash and medical benefits, according to estimates. Experts say judges should spend hours considering each case, and that Bridges’ extraordinary production makes that all but impossible.
“It’s preposterous,” said Sylvester J. Schieber, chairman of the Social Security Advisory Board, an oversight agency, who has studied productivity of the agency’s judges.
“As complicated as these cases are, it’s outrageous that he’s doing 50 cases a week when most other judges are toiling to get out 10 to 15.”
The agency’s top officials can’t seem to agree about Bridges.
Social Security Commissioner Michael J. Astrue — without naming Bridges — told The Oregonian in a statement that if any judge produces that many cases a year, it “invariably means the quality of the review is low or nonexistent.”
But Frank A. Cristaudo, the agency’s chief administrative law judge, said Social Security has reviewed the record of high-producing judges (which would include Bridges) and found no problem with their accuracy. Cristaudo declined to comment on the quality of Bridges’ work.
“He’s putting in incredible hours,” Cristaudo said. “He feels very committed to public service.”
And from another sidebar:
Last fall, after investigating the glacial pace of Social Security’s disability claims process for several months, I decided to talk my way into one of the hearings in which people make their pitches for benefits.
Portland’s hearing office was one of the slowest in the country, and no one had adequately explained why. So I figured a look inside might show what a brutal system it was for thousands of people.
Trouble was, the hearing rooms were supposedly closed to the public — even though the judges inside award untold billions of dollars in taxpayer money each year. ...
I would later learn that judges frequently permit friends and family into the hearings, and that they have in the past admitted law students, academics and congressional staffers.
It seemed the only class of people denied access, after having been invited by claimants, were news reporters.
It is obvious to me that someone at Social Security gave this reporter the idea that the Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) are to blame for the backlogs and that a "billion-dollar-judge" is giving away the store. I cannot imagine this happened without Commissioner Astrue approving it.
Social Security's ALJs are not above criticism, but the idea that blaming them is going to work as an excuse for the backlogs at Social Security is just preposterous. It may sort of work with one reporter one time, but it is not going to fly as a general matter, because it is not true. Blaming the ALJs would not have worked even when Republicans were in control of Congress and the White House and it certainly will not work now. If this is Michael Astrue's main plan for deflecting the blame from himself, he needs to come up with a new plan.
Labels: ALJs, Backlogs