From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) on the agency's National Hearing Centers (NHCs):
During FYs [Fiscal Years] 2010 and 2011, ODAR’s [Office of Disability Adjudication and Review] 5 NHCs processed more than 56,000 hearings to assist backlogged hearing offices with older cases. The Chicago Region transferred the highest number of cases during this period, about 50 percent of all cases the NHCs received. These transfers allowed the Chicago Region to address case backlogs while new hearing offices were being constructed to permanently address workload needs. We found the ALJs [Administrative Law Judges] working in the NHCs had a higher than average disposition rate that may have related to such factors as (1) a higher decision writer-to-ALJ ratio, (2) how attorneys are supervised, (3) the lack of travel to remote sites, (4) useful pre-hearing briefs, and (5) the processing of NHC remands at the hearing office level. However, the NHCs identified a number of challenges that may limit the effectiveness of the NHC model, including (1) availability of video capacity, (2) difficulties scheduling experts, and (3) claimants declining video hearings. The assisted hearing offices we contacted stated case transfers to the NHCs led to fewer pending cases and improved processing times. The hearing offices also had a few concerns, including their processing of NHC remands as well as the extra work related to declined video hearings.
The OIG report does not try to evaluate the NHCs versus their alternative, which would have been adding ALJs to traditional hearing offices where office space was available and using the excess capacity to help out backlogged offices.
Also of interest is a statement that Social Security is considering having NHC ALJs travel to hearing sites to hold hearings for claimants who decline video hearings. I suppose that Social Security may be re-evaluating this since they are no longer advising claimants of which ALJ will hold the hearing. There is also a statement that since January 3, 2012 remands from a NHC ALJ decision will be sent back to the NHC ALJ rather than being assigned to an ALJ at the ODAR office with jurisdiction over the area.
By the way, Social Security doesn't even know how many claimants are declining video hearings with NHC ALJs. From what I hear from other attorneys, I think that number has gone up dramatically since Social Security started withholding the identity of the ALJ until the day of the hearing.