Apr 9, 2009

A Little Deceptive

I practice law in North Carolina. My firm handles cases throughout most of the central and eastern part of the state. North Carolina is not the only state to have backlogs that are worse than the national average, but the backlogs here are significant. Here is the average processing time at the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) offices in North Carolina with the national average for comparison:
  • National 499 days
  • Raleigh 543 days
  • Charlotte 592 days
  • Greensboro 731 days
Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue has said in testimony before a Congressional committee that he will address these backlogs by opening an additional ODAR office in Fayetteville, NC. Opening an office in Fayetteville would be helpful to each of the existing ODAR offices in North Carolina, since each services a portion of the territory that would be served by a new ODAR office in Fayetteville. Greensboro ODAR got its huge backlog because it had most of the Fayetteville area for several years. Raleigh ODAR is building a larger backlog now since most of the Fayetteville area has been reassigned to Raleigh ODAR.

So, with a new ODAR office in Fayetteville, we must be heading towards a solution to the backlog problem in North Carolina? Wrong. The ODAR office planned for Fayetteville is not a real ODAR office. The plan is for an office with no employees. The "office" will have four hearing rooms that may be used for video hearings, but no employees.

Hearing rooms do not hold hearings. People hold hearings. This plan actually worsens service for claimants living in the Fayetteville area, since it means they are less likely to get a live hearing. This will lead to wild fluctuations in the number of hearings held, presenting practical difficulties for local attorneys. It also means that local attorneys will be relegated to dealing with a constantly changing array of Administrative Law Judges who have no familiarity with the area or local attorneys. To give an idea of the problem, Fayetteville is the home of Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. military base in the world. The area is crawling with retired military personnel. Their cases present some unusual aspects. Are you familiar with the medical condition known as "immersion foot?" You would if you heard cases in the Fayetteville area for long. Can someone who is still on active duty in the U.S. Army get Social Security disability benefits? You would know the answer if you heard cases in Fayetteville for long. See Social Security Administration, Program Operations Manual Series (POMS) §DI 10505.023 TN 7 (08-07) if you are interested in the answer. Have you ever dealt with a Social Security disability case in which a retired serviceman was suffering from PTSD as a result of taking "trophies" in a combat situation? The "trophies" I am talking about here are body parts of killed enemy soldiers. I imagine that ALJs in other areas of the country have seen this kind of case, but not nearly as often as ALJs in this area.

In my opinion, it is somewhat deceptive to say that Fayetteville is getting a new ODAR office. The difference between what Astrue has said and what is actually happening is significant.

Spin is part of government, but excessive spin reduces credibility. In my opinion, a Republican holdover like Michael Astrue ought to keep spin to a minimum. It would be better for him to be as blunt and straightforward as possible and, in general, to underpromise and overdeliver.


Anonymous said...

I agree about deceptive practice and spin.I'm looking at the average processing time for my area and the indication is this particular claim should be decided in a week but yet no hearing has been scheduled.A thought anyone?

Anonymous said...

There is no deception. SSA is doing two things: 1) building hearing rooms where the public can do hearings by video as well as 2) working with GSA to build a fully-staffed hearing office in Fayetteville.

Anonymous said...

Check your facts before you post things like this. The video only rooms are a short term measure to allow judges to hold more hearings without having to travel to do so.

The COSS has approved a new, fully staffed hearing office for Fayetteville. SSA is working with GSA to secure space for it now.

Please do the right thing and apologize for your deception and spin.

Nancy Ortiz said...

A hearing is not a video taped Q&A. It is a legal proceeding in which an ALJ makes a determination of credibility regarding the claimant's statements and claims of disablility. The COSS can approve future fully staffed ODAR offices at will. However, any facility or staffing that is not in place now may never be in place. That's our agency's history and we have the current backlogs to show for it. I well remember the earl 1980's when SSA had just completed the National Computer Center. It wanted to decentralize the NCC to provide better security and backup in case of regional disasters. Didn't happen. I'm sure any SSA field managers who have had the pleasure of waiting for GSA to act on a space action will confirm what I'm saying. Reality is not what someone writes in a memo. This COSS is nothing to brag about when it comes to making memos realities.

Nancy Ortiz said...

Forgot to mention that I worked in Voc Rehab in FL during the late 1960's. A good part of my caseload was guys getting out of prison for a first time drug offenses. They told me about their war experiences. Not good stuff. They got strung out on meth in the service and didn't do well after discharge, so ended up in jail. One of them showed me some polaroids of some dead VC he had killed and what he called his string of charcouts. It was the ears of VC he had killed that he kept as trophies. It's not surprising that this is happening now and that these guys are left to themselves to fight it out with the VA and us for whatever they can get. Yeah, this guy's case was easy. I keep wondering why ODAR people can't tell an easy allowance when they see one. But, I know the words to this song and so do y'all.