From the Federal Eye column in the Washington Post:
When The Post dug into the backlog for disability benefits at the Social Security Administration a year ago, it discovered that the line was approaching one million applications long. The number of people in this queue was so large that it exceeded the population of six different states.
Since then, the line has only gotten longer, according to a new report...
In July, Social Security replaced the two officials in charge of the appeals office, shifting them to other jobs at the agency in favor of new leadership to tackle the backlog.
Three months later, the new head of the office says she is “putting the finishing touches” on a plan to reduce the number of pending cases and speed the system up.
Terrie Gruber said in an interview that her goal is “compassionate and responsive” service to applicants for disability benefits ...
"We’re committed to new ways of doing business,” she said.
One of the biggest changes will include better triage of cases, so many don’t ever get to a lengthy hearing before a judge. New, electronically-generated data has helped the agency determine which appeals could be screened by attorneys and federal claims examiners, who can make decisions themselves, faster than judges, Gruber said. The number of attorneys is being increased.
When cases do go before judges, a new initiative is assigning support staff to arrange the files in better order, getting rid of duplicate medical documents and evidence that take a long time for judges to sort through. ...
A primary goal is hiring more judges, Gruber said, about 1,800 to 1,900 by fiscal 2018, an increase of about 400. Also, she is making use of new technology to enhance the quality of video hearings in remote locations where there are no judges, and improving support staff’s communications with judges when video hearings are involved.
A new pilot program is creating “pre-hearing” conferences at a handful of local Social Security offices, so applicants who don’t have attorneys can know what to expect when a judge hears their case.The statement that these plans show that the agency is "committed to new ways of doing business" is ridiculous. That doesn't mean I disagree with the plans. It's just that there's virtually nothing new here. I'm actually an enthusiastic supporter of the pre-hearing screenings part and I'd love to see more ALJs hired. The rest is harmless. Let's go through the elements of the plan:
- New, electronically-generated data has helped the agency determine which appeals could be screened by attorneys and federal claims examiners, who can make decisions themselves, faster than judges. This is just the revival of the Senior Attorney and re-recon programs that have been used successfully in the past. Social Security certainly didn't have to replace Glenn Sklar to do this since he supervised the exact same programs in the past. This can make a significant difference. They never should have been dropped. The only reason they were dropped was concern that the agency would be criticized for "paying down the backlog." By the way, ALJs, this is your Bat Signal. It's now OK to issue on the record reversals.
- [A] new initiative is assigning support staff to arrange the files in better order, getting rid of duplicate medical documents and evidence that take a long time for judges to sort through. There's nothing new about this. Support staff has been "pulling" exhibits for at least 37 years. I know. I've been involved with Social Security disability for 37 years. It wasn't new when I started. I don't know why this would even be listed. I can't imagine anything they could be planning that would be new. If anything, ALJs ought to be hearing cases on unpulled files! Yes, ALJs, that's been done before. No, I don't like cases being heard with unpulled files but I'm quite willing to put up with them if we can just get more cases heard. People are waiting two years for hearings. This is a horrible situation that demands urgent action. When cases are heard with unpulled files, the exhibits are eventually pulled, but only if it's going to be a denial.
- A primary goal is hiring more judges, Gruber said, about 1,800 to 1,900 by fiscal 2018, an increase of about 400. They're been saying something like this for at least twenty years. It seems like the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) always makes it impossible for the agency to hire as many ALJs as Social Security says it wants to hire. At least that's what Social Security has claimed. I've never fully bought into OPM being the villain. I've always suspected that the real reason more ALJs aren't hired is that the agency's budget is way too tight and decisions have been made to devote resources elsewhere. I suspect that the agency uses OPM as its fall guy. I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of names on the ALJ register who could be hired almost immediately if the agency really wanted to hire them.
- A new pilot program is creating “pre-hearing” conferences at a handful of local Social Security offices, so applicants who don’t have attorneys can know what to expect when a judge hears their case. Pre-hearing conferences haven't been done lately but they may date back a quarter-century. So claimants can know what to expect? Hardly. The primary reason for holding these pre-hearing conferences for unrepresented claimants is to weed out those who don't show up. Send them a show cause notice and then dismiss their cases when they don't respond. Dismissing these cases earlier makes the average numbers look better but it really doesn't reduce the workload by much. Many ALJs already schedule hearings for unrepresented claimants five minutes apart on the assumption that most won't show up. What may be new here is that the agency is talking about doing pre-hearing conferences at local Social Security offices. Could it be field office personnel doing the pre-hearing conferences?