Aug 28, 2012

Responding To A Leading Question

     From a recent report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (footnotes omitted):
In a January 17, 2012 email, the Commissioner of SSA requested that we determine why some ready to schedule (RTS) cases remained unscheduled. The Commissioner also requested we review the role work-at-home days (Flexiplace) play in case scheduling and report on any office dynamics that are of concern in terms of effective service. ...
Of the 11 hearing offices we contacted, 8 experienced an increase in RTS cases from April 2011 through March 2012. Hearing office staff cited various reasons for this increase. For example, staff at several hearing offices attributed the increase to their development of additional cases for hearings so they would have a larger inventory from which to select when scheduling conflicts occurred. Staff at other hearing offices attributed the increase to expanded service areas and a greater number of disability filings. In contrast, three hearing offices experienced a decrease in RTS cases. Hearing office staff attributed the decrease to transferring cases to other hearing offices, modifying their scheduling procedures, and spending less time developing cases.
Hearing office staff cited various obstacles that impacted their ability to timely schedule hearings. Most notably, staff cited claimant representative availability as the greatest obstacle they faced when scheduling hearings. To a lesser degree, hearing office staff cited ALJ availability as another key obstacle that caused scheduling difficulties. Other less cited obstacles included availability of medical and vocational experts, hearing rooms, and video teleconferencing (VTC) equipment. Hearing office staff also reported difficulties when scheduling hearings for incarcerated claimants.
We acknowledge that accommodating the schedules and preferences of multiple hearing participants is difficult and cumbersome. However, based on our review of 11 hearing offices, we believe ODAR can take additional steps to address some of the key obstacles hearing office staff face when scheduling hearings. To improve the timeliness of hearings, we encourage ODAR to consider limiting the number of times it offers claimant representatives specific dates and times before scheduling a hearing. In addition, we encourage ODAR to analyze hearing office and ALJ performance data to determine whether it should take additional steps to address key obstacles hearing office staff face during the scheduling process. Specifically, we believe ODAR should encourage hearing offices to better coordinate hearing dates and rooms among its ALJs. We also encourage ODAR to consider limiting ALJs’ use of Flexiplace to once a week, where appropriate. Furthermore, we encourage ODAR to reexamine its policy of allowing ALJs to transfer to another hearing office soon after meeting their 90-day service requirement  ...
      We can debate each of the individual factors. The points I would make is that there hasn't been any recent change in ALJ or attorney behavior and there has been no sign of decreased ALJ productivity. To the contrary, ALJ productivity has continued to increase. To me, the answer seems simple.  More cases are getting worked up than there are ALJs to hear them. OIG was responding to a leading question from the Commissioner, one which indicated a desire to point the finger of blame at someone other than Social Security management.

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